COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — The first COVID-19 vaccine in the US is expected to receive final approval from the Food and Drug Administration in the next week or two. However, experts believe some logistical challenges with this specific vaccine could impact the ability to distribute the vaccine in rural communities.
"We have anticipated that we will have enough vaccine by the end of December to have vaccinated our most vulnerable citizens in nursing homes and otherwise, and by the end of January, enough for all health care workers and first responders," Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told NBC's Today on Tuesday.
He also anticipates a general vaccination program for all Americans to begin near the end of March to early April.
The vaccine, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, requires two doses to be given about a month apart. It will be shipped to the states frozen and must be stored at temperatures of -60 to -80 degrees Celsius (-100 degrees Fahrenheit.)
"Maintaining the vaccine at such a cold temperature is going to be difficult for certainly for international locations as well as for rural locations in the US," said Dr. Sam Sun, Director of the non-profit science and medical group inDemic Foundation.
He explained that the initial shipments of the vaccine will contain large numbers of doses of more than 1,000. He hopes that the pharmaceutical companies will be able to send smaller containers to reduce the risk of damaging or spoiling vaccines in rural areas.
"The containers don't have to be opened and closed repeatedly which could make some of the vaccine samples spoil," he explained.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment anticipated this need in its COVID-19 vaccination plan submitted last month to the CDC. In a statement to News 5, the department explained that they have worked closely with local health agencies to identify 16 locations statewide with ultra low-temperature freezers to receive the early shipments of the vaccine.
Many of the sites already have these specialized freezers. However, CDPHE also purchased and plans to distribute an additional 10 freezers around the state.
The distribution locations were chosen for their unique abilities to store, monitor, and handle vaccines in ultra-cold temperatures as well as for their willingness to redistribute COVID-19 vaccines to Phase 1 providers in their respective regions.
The state also considered the geographic distribution of the vaccine and transportation logistics in winter road conditions when developing the plan.
The manufacturer's shipping containers will be able to store the vaccine at the recommended temperature for multiple days.
Dr. Sun also points out that additional vaccines under development won't have the same temperature sensitivity.