Initial doses of Pfizer’s long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine have arrived in Los Angeles, the first step in a massive undertaking that will see the county attempt to vaccinate 6 million people in six months, beginning with critical health care workers.
The first shipment arrived at Los Angeles International Airport late Sunday night. Airport officials trumpeted the arrival on Twitter, posting photos of the FedEx jetliner carrying the vaccine, which received formal approval from federal authorities over the weekend for immediate use.
Pfizer and U.S. officials said the vaccine has been found to be 95% effective in preventing COVID-19.
Army Gen. Gustave Perna of Operation Warp Speed told reporters Saturday that UPS and FedEx would be delivering the vaccine to nearly 150 distribution centers across the country.
Los Angeles County’s initial allotment of vaccine is expected to be nearly 83,000 doses, a population-based percentage of the roughly 327,000 doses being received by the state of California. The county’s vaccines will be dispersed to nine ultra-cold storage facilities — the locations of which ware not being released due to security concerns, although some hospitals have publicly stated they would be handling the medication. Those facilities will then distribute the doses to 83 acute-care hospitals, which will then oversee its administration to selected critical frontline workers.
UCLA Health officials said they expected to get the vaccines Monday or Tuesday, with shots administered on Wednesday.
“UCLA Health is implementing comprehensive and detailed plans to receive, store and administer COVID-19 vaccinations. We anticipate a limited number of doses arriving in the next day or two, with additional supplies to follow. We have been designated as a regional hub for distribution to other acute-care hospitals,” a UCLA Health statement said.
“Based on the phased allocations made available to UCLA Health, we are committed to offering vaccinations in a fair, equitable and orderly manner that prioritizes those at greatest risk, consistent with guidelines established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the California and Los Angeles County departments of public health. UCLA Health anticipates beginning to inoculate our own frontline health care workers as soon as Wednesday.”
Officials with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said they had no definitive information yet on when they would be receiving the vaccine.
Around midday, Gov. Gavin Newsom is scheduled to visit a Los Angeles County hospital “that will administer some of the first doses to health care workers.” According to Newsom’s office, a Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup — a group of experts created by governors of California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington to independently verify the safety of any vaccine — concluded its review of the Pfizer vaccine Sunday and confirmed it is “safe and efficacious.”
The Pfizer vaccine was co-developed by German partner BioNTech. It needs to be stored at minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit.
Last week, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that the county hopes to receive its second allotment of a vaccine made by Moderna — about 250,000 doses, pending FDA approval — around Dec. 20-21. Much of that second dose allotment will be distributed directly skilled nursing facilities, allowing them to administer it right away instead of waiting for a federal distribution agreement with CVS and Walgreens to begin on roughly Dec. 28.
Staff and residents of nursing facilities and long-term care facilities will be among the first wave of people receiving the Moderna vaccine, which does not require the ultra-cold storage needed for the Pfizer vaccine. Long-term care facilities will still receive the vaccine through CVS and Walgreens.
Ferrer said public health officials on Friday began the process of training skilled nursing facility staff on how to administer the vaccination, while noting that those staffers already administer flu vaccines, so it is not a new experience.
The county anticipates receiving another 150,000 doses of vaccine by the end of December, followed by weekly allotments of 250,000 beginning in January. Both vaccines require two doses, separated by about three weeks. With the county planning to vaccinate 6 million people in six months, that equates to 12 million doses of vaccine.
After the distribution of vaccines to health care workers, skilled nursing facilities and long-term care staff and residents is completed, priority will then move to “essential workers” and then to people at highest risk of severe illness from the virus, such as seniors or those with underlying health conditions.
The county’s chief science officer insisted Thursday the process will be done equitably based on health priorities, not on power or prominence.
“Equity is a fundamental principle here,” Dr. Paul Simon said. “We want to make sure all people have access, and that those that are at greatest risk either because of higher risk of exposure, or greater risk of severe illness because of chronic health conditions or other factors have more immediate access to the vaccine.”
Simon conceded that the judgment of who is considered “at risk” could become a matter for debate.
“That probably is going to become an important consideration when we really start to roll things out — when we move beyond the highest-risk groups into groups where the risks may be a little bit more uncertain or there are larger areas of gray,” he said. “And there, I think, we will do our best to prioritize, be as transparent as possible. I don’t think we’re going to be doing validation checks with each person as they float through the line, so I think there is sort of an honor system to some degree. But we will do everything possible to make sure we are doing this in an equitable manner, tending to the risks and making sure that we maximize the benefits.”
The timing of when the vaccine will start to become available to more of the general population remains a mystery. Simon said that while the vaccine offers a glimmer of hope about a potential end to the pandemic and lockdown orders, the county is still in the midst of a dangerous surge in cases, so residents should expect to see restrictions continuing for months.
He said the administration of the vaccine — an effort to vaccinate about 6 million people in six months — will be a “massive undertaking the scale of which many would argue is unprecedented given the time emergency.” But he said a major factor in moving the county closer to “herd immunity” and an eventual return to normalcy will rely on people actually agreeing to be vaccinated.
“We recognize many folks have concerns about the vaccines and may be hesitant to be vaccinated,” Simon said. “As we implement the county plan to vaccinate literally millions of Angelenos, it will be critically important that we address this vaccine hesitancy with accurate, understandable, culturally sensitive and linguistically appropriate information, relying on trusted community leaders to help deliver these messages.”