A task force set up by Gov. Brian Kemp will push to meet the CDC’s deadline for having COVID-19 vaccine doses ready to distribute in time for the November election.
But the directive, issued to governors last week by CDC Director Robert Redfield, has sparked outrage from the scientific community, which doubts a valid vaccine can be ready that quickly and worries that political motives influenced the agency.
“What scares me to death is the thought that we would use our distribution system to distribute something that is neither safe nor effective,” said Mark Rosenberg, who spent 20 years working for the CDC and 16 years as president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health.
Georgia will have to overcome some hurdles to meet the deadline. Gov. Kemp said Wednesday that the source of funding for a statewide vaccine delivery system hasn’t been determined, and he has state attorneys studying whether changes to Georgia laws will be needed to expedite permits. He has tapped acting Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John King, a major general in the Georgia National Guard who has been deployed to other states on pandemic-related missions, to head a panel to “put all the nuts and bolts together.”
“We’re looking at the logistics: Where it’s going to be, where it needs to go, who’s going to get it,” Kemp said.
Credit: Miguel Martinez/MH
Credit: Miguel Martinez/MH
The Atlanta-based CDC told state health agencies a month ago that as part of Operation Warp Speed, they should have plans for vaccine distribution drafted by Oct. 1 “to coincide with earliest possible release of COVID-19 vaccine.” Redfield’s Aug. 27 letter asked governors to expedite or consider waiving permitting requirements so that the McKesson Corporation, a pharmaceutical company contracting with the CDC, can have distribution centers operating in their states by Nov. 1.
The letter was sent the same day that President Trump spoke of a vaccine possibly arriving before the end of the year “or maybe even sooner” in a speech to the Republican National Convention.
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Maj. Gen. King told the AJC on Thursday that he’s not concerning himself with whether the deadline is politically motivated.
“The bottom line is, if the vaccines are ready, then we have to move heaven and earth to get these vaccines to Georgians,” King said. “If it could be done sooner, I want it sooner.”
King said the task force will include Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey, Community Health Commissioner Frank Berry and Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency Director Chris Stallings.
Vaccines supplies will likely be very limited at first, Redfield said on Aug. 28, even though manufacturers have already been producing doses before any vaccine has been authorized. So the first priority will be health care workers and first responders, then later those at greatest risk. Other priorities are still being determined.
King said Georgia’s distribution system could involve a combination of sites operated by Public Health and doses provided to major healthcare systems such as Grady Health and Augusta University Health.
Credit: Ryon Horne
Credit: Ryon Horne
“We’re looking at multiple ways to deliver this,” the acting insurance commissioner said. “No one community is the same as another.”
Public health experts told the AJC they have no qualms with the CDC encouraging states to begin devising ways to administer vaccine shots to millions of people. But some said Redfield’s setting a distribution date two days before Election Day is yet another blow to the agency’s credibility. Before his letter to governors came to light this week, the CDC had been under fire for new testing guidance that said people exposed to the disease but who don’t have symptoms don’t necessarily need to be tested — viewed as lining up with Trump’s stated desire for less testing.
Neither the CDC nor the White House immediately responded to requests for comment for this story.
Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, a national organization of health professionals that lobbies at the federal level, said Trump could claim to have a vaccine before the election, whether he really does or not.
States, meanwhile, must quickly grapple with an array of logistical challenges for a hypothetical vaccine.
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Most medical offices don’t have the type of cold storage needed to store one of the three vaccines being developed, Benjamin said. That vaccine requires sub-zero temperatures.
Complications could arise if the vaccine requires specialized needles and syringes. And in the coming cold months, elderly residents might steer clear of drive-in vaccination sites that expose them to the elements.
“This is the group that’s unable to do the adequate contract tracing. And you want them now to pivot and give vaccinations?” Benjamin said. “I don’t think this vaccine’s going to ready for prime time until after the first of the year, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to begin making sure the infrastructure’s in place to deliver it.”
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said a COVID-19 vaccine could be ready sooner than expected if ongoing clinical trials of 30,000 people produce overwhelmingly positive results and a data and safety monitoring board allows ending the trials early.
Experts who spoke with the AJC raised concerns about a rushed vaccine making more effective ones difficult to approve in the future, or of vaccinated people potentially being re-infected more severely.
Rosenberg, the former head of the Task Force for Global Health, said people may not trust a vaccine that’s viewed as driven by politics. Some parents who are already distrustful of vaccines might start rejecting them altogether.
“It will increase the percent of vaccine hesitant people from maybe 50% to 95%,” Rosenberg said. “And for the first time ever, we will be moving our children in our population from herd immunity to herd susceptibility.”
Gov. Kemp said the distribution program will include an awareness campaign to get the public comfortable with the new vaccine. The governor spoke of returning to normalcy.
“You’ve got to build confidence back for people who want to go to a restaurant, want to go to a convention center, want to do business travel again,” Kemp said. “They’re getting more and more comfortable every day going out — not everybody is, and if they don’t, they don’t need to. But I think with a vaccine, it surely would help with that confidence to get people moving more than they are right now.”
Staff Writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this story.
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