COVID vaccine

A mock vaccine delivery at the Snohomish Health District last week. 

Staff received a box packaged in a way meant to simulate how shipments of vaccine would arrive. The package took less than 24 hours to arrive once shipped. Inside, there was a dry ice pod and an empty box, but staff followed all instructions provided as if vaccine vials were included.

State officials are preparing to distribute the first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Washington next week, and could have 400,000 people vaccinated by the end of the month.

Here are some questions and answers about the status of COVID-19 vaccines in Washington state and in Yakima County:

What do we know about vaccine distribution in Washington state?

The state expects to receive 62,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in an initial shipment now that the Food and Drug Administration has approved the emergency use authorization. The first doses will be sent next week, according to the state Department of Health.

Including that total, the state is expecting 222,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine by the end of December, 20,000 more than previously thought.

It also is expecting 183,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine candidate in December, once FDA approval is granted. The FDA is scheduled to review the Moderna application on Dec. 17.

Altogether, the state expects 400,000 people could receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the month, said Michele Roberts, DOH acting assistant secretary during a briefing on Wednesday.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses.

Where is it going?

The first vaccines will be distributed at 17 sites across 13 counties, including Yakima County. The state isn’t providing information about the exact locations.

Who will get the vaccine first?

High-risk workers in health care settings, highest-risk first responders and residents and staff of long-term care facilities will receive the vaccine first. The state says those in skilled nursing facilities should be prioritized first among long-term care residents.

“We hope to get through those groups by the middle of January or a little later,” Roberts said.

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Decisions on the next groups in line haven’t been made yet. The state is working on plans and watching decisions made by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it said.

It will be a few months before the vaccines are widely distributed. Until then, people need to continue to wear masks, maintain social distancing and take other measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, health officials say.

What about the Western States Pact?

Once the FDA approval is granted, it will be reviewed by a scientific panel put together by the Western States Pact, which includes Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado and California.

The review adds another layer of scrutiny, and is expected to take one or two days. It will take place while the vaccine is being processed and shipped and shouldn’t delay distribution, Roberts said.

What about the shipment and storage of the vaccine?

Pfizer’s vaccine requires temperatures of minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the vaccines arrive, a provider can put them into ultra-low temperature freezers for up to six months or refrigeration units commonly available at hospitals, where they can be stored for five days, according to Pfizer.

Roberts said the vaccines also can be stored in the “thermal shipper” they come in with dry ice, as long as the provider can use all 975 doses in 20 days. The shippers need to be refilled with dry ice every few days.

The state is working on a policy to allow hospitals and providers that can’t use a full shipment to transfer extra vaccine to other facilities, Roberts said.

Moderna’s vaccine candidate will be easier to handle. It can remain stable at standard refrigerator temperatures for 30 days. Shipping and long-term storage require standard freezer temperatures of minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the company.

What about distribution and storage locally?

Yakima County has three ultra-cold storage facilities and plans to have more available in the coming months, according to the Yakima Health District.

Six organizations in Yakima County have received approval from the state to distribute the vaccine, or are in the approval process, according to the Yakima Health District. The organizations are Yakima County’s three hospitals, the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, Neighborhood Health and Community Health of Central Washington. The Yakima Health District is not storing or distributing the vaccine, but is working closely with organizations to ensure they are prepared.