After months of planning and development, the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines is slated to arrive in New Jersey any day, providing a new level of protection for health care workers and nursing home residents most at risk for the disease.
Many details remained in flux last week, including how many doses the state will initially receive and when exactly they will arrive. New Jersey health officials said plans are in place to begin immunizations as soon as possible for a priority group that includes a wide array of health care workers — paid and unpaid — and elderly and medically fragile people in nursing homes and other long-term care.
However, it will take weeks, if not months, before enough people are immunized to significantly reduce the spread of the coronavirus, state officials warned last week. Nearly 390,000 New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March and more than 17,500 fatalities have been connected to the virus.
“Yes, we are, literally, just days away from the first vaccines being delivered to New Jersey,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at a media briefing Wednesday. “But we are still months away from the vaccination rates we will need to leave this pandemic behind us,” he added, reiterating the need for masks, social distancing and other precautions. “This is no time for anyone to get lax.”
As the state prepares to launch its historic COVID-19 vaccine campaign, here’s how the vaccines are expected make their way to New Jersey:
- America’s vaccine quest dates to the early days of the outbreak in this country. Between late March and early May, the federal Health and Human Services Administration signed agreements with multiple pharmaceutical companies to develop and test a coronavirus inoculation for national distribution.
- Through Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s vaccine program, federal agencies invested more than $1 billion to beef up domestic manufacturing processes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least $385 million was also committed to developing glass vials and other materials needed for transporting the vaccines.
- Between May and August, federal officials pledged some $9.7 billion for vaccine development and distribution, funding the Pfizer serum approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week and candidates by Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and others, according to the CDC.
- Once the FDA approves a vaccine — Moderna could receive an OK later this week — supplies will be shipped from the company’s manufacturing sites to health care facilities around the nation. Pfizer, which partnered with German firm BioNTech on the development of its vaccine, said it plans to produce 50 million doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion by the end of 2021. Pfizer will use factories in Massachusetts, Missouri and Minnesota for a portion of this supply.
- Pfizer’s vaccine requires “ultra-cold storage” in freezers that can maintain temperatures as low as -80 degrees Celsius, technology that is limited to larger hospitals and research facilities. The company has also developed special shipping containers that use dry ice to keep the vaccines at around -70 degrees Celsius for up to 15 days, or longer if the ice is regularly replaced. These packages will also be loaded with GPS tracking devices to monitor the distribution, Pfizer said. After being unpacked, the vaccines can be stored in a regular refrigerator for five more days, but can’t be refrozen.
- According to the CDC, Pfizer has contracted with FedEx and UPS to ship the vaccines in their dry-ice containers directly to hospitals, public health facilities, doctors’ offices, pharmacies and other sites. New Jersey’s Department of Health said more than 300 entities have enrolled in its program to receive vaccines. In the U.S., the shipping will involve a combination of cargo planes and ground transportation; American Airlines, Delta and other companies are also stepping up.
- The federal government has also hired the McKesson medical supply company to assembly needles and syringes into kits that will be shipped to the hospitals, pharmacies and other sites. Some of the vaccines will also be shipped directly to McKesson, which will assemble complete kits for distribution. In New Jersey hospitals and other vaccine sites will receive kits that include the vaccine, state officials said.
- Once vaccination begins in New Jersey, the state health department has designated health care workers — paid and unpaid, in all settings — and residents and staff at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities as the priority. The second phase is slated to include senior citizens and frontline workers of all kinds, while the general public will be part of the third phase.
- Hospitals will be the site of the first immunizations for health care workers and CVS will deploy teams to long-term care facilities to vaccinate people there. Eventually, the shots will be available through a wide network of public health offices, community clinics and private medical sites.