One tray of COVID-19 vaccine from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer contains 975 doses — way too many for a rural hospital in Arkansas.
But with the logistical gymnastics required to safely get the Pfizer vaccine to rural health care workers, splitting the trays into smaller shipments has its own dangers. Once out of the freezer that keeps it at 94 degrees below zero, the vaccine lasts only five days and must be refrigerated in transit.
In Arkansas — where over 40% of its counties are rural and COVID infections are climbing — solving this distribution puzzle is urgently critical, said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the state's epidemiologist.
"If their providers come down with COVID-19," Dillaha said, "there's no one there to take care of the patients."
Such quandaries resonate with officials in Georgia, Kentucky, Utah, Indiana, Wisconsin and Colorado. The first push of the nation's mass COVID vaccination effort has been chaotic, marked by a lack of guidance and miscommunication from the federal level.
With Washington punting most vaccination decisions, each state and county is left to weigh where to send vaccines first and which of two vaccines authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use makes the most sense for each nursing home, hospital, local health department and even school. And after warning for months that they lacked the resources to distribute vaccines, state officials are only now set to receive a major bump in funding — $8.75 billion in Congress' latest relief bill, which lawmakers passed late Monday.
The feat facing public health officials has "absolutely no comparison" in recent history, said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers.
Officials who thought the H1N1 swine flu shot in 2009 was a logistical nightmare say it now looks simple in comparison. "It was a flu vaccine. It was one dose. It came at refrigerator-stable temperatures," Hannan said. "It was nothing like this."
Within just a few days, the logistical barriers of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech were laid bare. Many officials now hang their hopes on Moderna, whose vaccine comes in containers of 100 doses, doesn't require deep freezing and is good for 30 days from the time it's shipped.
The federal government had divvied up nearly 8 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines to distribute this week, on top of roughly 3 million Pfizer shots that were sent last week, said Army Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operating officer of the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed effort.
Perna said he took "personal responsibility" for overstating how many Pfizer doses states would receive.
Federal delays have led to confusion, Dillaha said: "Sometimes we don't have information from CDC or Operation Warp Speed until right before a decision needs to be made."
Officials in other states painted a mixed picture of the rollout.
Georgia's Coastal Health District, which oversees public health for eight counties and has offices in Savannah and Brunswick, spent more than $27,000 on two ultra-cold freezers for the Pfizer vaccine, which it's treating "like gold," said Dr. Lawton Davis, its health director. Health care workers are being asked to travel, some up to 40 minutes, to get their vaccinations, because shipping them would risk wasting doses, he said. Vaccination uptake has been lower than Davis would like to see. "It's sort of a jigsaw puzzle and balancing act," he said. "We're kind of learning as we go."
In Utah, sites to vaccinate teachers and first responders starting in January had no capability to store the Pfizer vaccine, although officials are trying to secure some ultra-cold storage, a state department of health spokesperson said. Very few of Kentucky's local health offices could store the Pfizer shots, because of refrigeration requirements and the size of shipments, said Sara Jo Best, public health director of the Lincoln Trail District. Indiana's state health department had to identify alternative cold storage options for 17 hospitals following changes in guidance for the vaccine thermal shippers.
And in New Hampshire, where the National Guard will help administer vaccines, officials last week were still finalizing details for 13 community-based sites where first responders and health care workers are due to get vaccinated later this month. Jake Leon, a state Health and Human Services spokesperson, said that while the sites will be able to administer both companies' vaccines, most likely they'll get Moderna's because of its easier transport. Even as the earliest vaccines are injected, much remains up in the air.
"It's day to day and even then hour by hour or minute by minute — what we know and how we plan for it," Leon said Friday. "We're building the plane while flying it."
In all, the Trump administration has bought 900 million COVID vaccine doses from six companies, but most of the vaccines are still in clinical studies. Even the front-runners whose shots have received FDA emergency authorization— Pfizer and BioNTech on Dec. 11, Moderna on Dec. 18 — will require months to manufacture at that scale. The Trump administration plans to distribute 20 million vaccine doses to states by early January, Perna said Saturday.
By spring, officials hope to stage broader vaccine deployment beyond top-priority populations of health care workers, nursing home residents and staff, as well as first responders.
During the effort to vaccinate Americans against H1N1, Dillaha said, health departments set up mass vaccination clinics in their counties and delivered doses to schools. But hospitals are taking charge of parts of the initial COVID immunization campaign, both because health care workers are at highest risk of illness or death from COVID-19, and to pick up the slack from health departments overwhelmed by case investigations and contact tracing from an unending stream of new infections.
Best said her workforce is struggling to keep up with COVID infections alone, much less flu season and upcoming COVID vaccinations. Public health department personnel in Kentucky shrank by 49% from 2009 to 2019, according to state data she supplied. Across the country, 38,000 state and local health positions have disappeared since the 2008 recession. Per capita spending for local health departments has dropped by 18% since 2010.
Nationally, Pfizer and Moderna have signed contracts with the federal government to each provide 100 million vaccine doses by the end of March; Moderna is set to deliver a second tranche of 100 million doses by June. States were playing it safe last week, directing Pfizer vials mainly to facilities with ultra-cold freezers, Hannan said.
"A lot of that vaccine is destined for institutional facilities," Sean Dickson, director of health policy for West Health Policy Center, said of the Pfizer shots. The center, with the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, found that 35% of counties have two or fewer facilities to administer COVID vaccines.
The analysis found tremendous variation in how far people would need to drive for the vaccine. Residents of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas face the longest drives, with more than 10% living more than 10 miles from the closest facility that could administer a shot.
Counties with long driving distances between sites and a low number of sites overall "are going to be the hardest ones to reach," said Inmaculada Hernandez, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy and lead author of the analysis.
Certain vaccines could be better suited for such places, including Johnson & Johnson's potential offering, which is a single shot, and health departments could distribute in rural areas through mobile units, she said. The company is expected to apply for FDA emergency authorization in February, Operation Warp Speed chief scientific adviser Moncef Slaoui said this month.
Until then, Pfizer and Moderna are the companies supplying doses for the country, and they're not considered equal even though each is more than 90% effective at reducing disease.
In Wisconsin, the Moderna vaccine "gives us many more options" and "allows for us to get doses to those smaller clinics, more-rural clinics, in a way that reduces the number of logistics" needed for ultra-cold storage, Dr. Stephanie Schauer, the state's immunization program manager, told reporters Wednesday.
Alan Morgan, head of the National Rural Health Association, echoed that the Moderna vaccine is being looked to as a "rural solution." But he said states including Kansas have shown that a Pfizer rural rollout can be done.
"It's where these states put a priority — either they prioritize rural or they don't," he said. "It's a cautionary tale of what we may see this spring, of rural populations perhaps being second-tier when it comes to vaccination."
Virginia, too, has a plan for getting the Pfizer vaccine to far-flung places. It's shipping the vaccines to 18 health facilities with ultra-cold freezers across the state. The hubs are distributed widely enough so vaccinators can bring shots from there to health workers even in thinly populated areas before they spoil, said Brookie Crawford, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Health's central region.
Washington, on the other hand, allows hospitals without ultra-cold freezers to temporarily store Pfizer vaccines in the thermal boxes they arrive in, said Franji Mayes, spokesperson for the state's health department. That means a box needs to be used quickly, before doses expire. "We are also working on a policy that will allow hospitals who don't expect to vaccinate 975 people to transfer extra vaccine to other enrolled facilities," she said. "This will reduce wasted vaccine."