JEFFERSON CITY — Distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine could begin for some Missouri health care workers by next month, according to Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
Williams laid out vaccine distribution plans — with some caveats — and defended the administration’s COVID-19 approach before a panel of state lawmakers Tuesday morning.
Williams referenced news out of Chesterfield, where clinical trials for Pfizer’s vaccine have shown 90% effectiveness in test subjects.
Pfizer’s large-scale clinical trial is part of a greater race for a vaccine in the U.S. which includes companies Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
Williams is optimistic that there will be a vaccine approved for deployment by the end of the year in Missouri by emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.
“Are you saying that we can go back to our districts today and tell the folks back home (that) we’re going to have a vaccine in December?” asked committee chair Rep. Jon Patterson, a doctor from Lee’s Summit.
“If the FDA doesn’t approve it,” Williams responded, “it will not happen in December. So that is based on FDA approval. If the FDA approves it, I believe that Pfizer will get the EUA (emergency use authorization) in the next two to three weeks.”
If the process is smooth, health care workers and long-term care facility workers will be the first to receive doses in December, he said.
Members of Operation Warp Speed — the federal government's effort to accelerate the production of a vaccine — tasked states with identifying locations for pre-positioning vaccines to ensure that vaccine supply is closer to the administration sites where vaccines are needed, according to Williams.
Partners throughout Missouri will receive and store vaccines once an EUA is issued by FDA. But before it can be used, the CDC will have to provide recommendations based on the most current information available.
Some of vaccines in play, including Pfizer and Moderna, require storage as much as 94 degrees below zero.
Five sites were selected based on location within the state and “their ability to store, handle and monitor vaccines that require ultra-cold temperature storage,” according to the health chief.
If approval goes as planned, the three phases of implementation are:
Phase 1: Workers at health care and long-term care facilities will see “potentially-limited doses” around December, administered out of the five pre-positioned sites which will be announced closer to release, according to Williams.
Phase 2: As more doses are produced, availability will expand to provider networks consisting of settings such as doctors’ offices, retail pharmacies and public health clinics.
Phase 3: By April, open access and wide distribution of vaccines should be available to “every Missourian who needs or wants one,” Williams said.
One lawmaker asked whether there would be a mandate related to the vaccine. Williams said that though he did not favor that approach for adults, school children coming in contact with vulnerable teachers or parents will be required to receive the vaccine.
“Our ultimate goal is we want people to be vaccinated,” he said. “Especially with adults, we just think it’s incredibly important that we educate them about the importance of that.”
Some committee members stressed the importance of getting people to use the vaccine.
“I think that is a point that we need to be — as legislature — saying ‘Hey, vaccination is the way we will control it,’” said State Rep. Kent Haden (R-Mexico), “and if we’re really afraid of the disease — we need to be vaccinating.”
Part of the discussion during Tuesday’s hearing centered on how often people will need to be vaccinated.
“What’s the conversation like on potential mutations and the possibility of this becoming a yearly shot like a flu vaccine?” Patterson asked.
“COVID does not appear to have the mutativity such that the vaccine will not affect it,” Williams said. “We do not think, because of the coronavirus and the particular nature of those viruses, that mutations will not affect the vaccine.”
Whether or not someone would need another shot the next year, he said, is still up in the air.
Williams also praised the administration’s handling of the pandemic, even as cases are on the rise.
Missouri has seen the surging rates of infection, hospitalizations and deaths over the past month, overwhelming health providers and regional hospitals with wide catchment areas throughout the state.
In his opening remarks to the House Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention, Williams praised the governor and the state health department’s “balanced approach” to administering health directives and mitigating the spread of COVID-19.