There’s been some promising news in recent days about not just one, but two potential COVID-19 vaccines, and Becker County area health officials are coming up with a local distribution plan in anticipation of a vaccine becoming available as soon as next month.

The county’s public health department, area hospitals, clinics and pharmacies are all working together to finalize the plan, said Kristin Bausman, supervisor of Becker County Public Health.

When a vaccine receives approval in the U.S., it’ll be distributed in a phased approach that prioritizes critical care workers and vulnerable populations.

“Our health care personnel will be getting it first,” Bausman said, followed by “those residing in long-term care facilities and assisted living, and then from there we open it up even more, to anybody who’s high risk” before it becomes widely available to lower-risk adults.

Two populations excluded at this point “because of ongoing studies” are children and pregnant women, according to Dr. Richard Vetter, chief medical officer for the Essentia West area, which includes Detroit Lakes and Fargo. “Those would be part of a next step.”

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While the particulars surrounding “who gets it first” are still being honed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "The hope is that healthcare professionals can get it by the end of December or early January," Bausman said, "and then hopefully by spring it will be available to anybody who wants it -- April or May, they’ve been saying, but that could change.”

“The timeline is a little bit fluid,” said Vetter. “I think it will probably be sometime within this calendar year -- within the next month, from what I’m hearing.”

The local plan goes hand-in-hand with Minnesota’s preliminary distribution plan, which the Minnesota Department of Health submitted to the CDC in late October. The state’s plan calls for a three-phase rollout, with the use of mobile clinics and pharmacies to make the vaccine more readily available in rural or remote areas. Hospitals, clinics, public health departments and certain national chain pharmacies such as Walgreens and CVS will all administer it.

The vaccine will come at no charge, and will “meet the same standards as any other vaccine” distributed in Minnesota, according to the health department’s Director of Infectious Disease, Kris Ehresmann.

Vetter said it’s not clear yet how many vaccines will be allocated to each region of Minnesota. Those numbers have yet to be released, and will be based on regional population estimates along with the total number of doses available in the state.

A good news week for vaccines

First, on Monday, Nov. 9, Pfizer Inc. announced that its experimental COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective based on initial trial results, and then, just one week later, Moderna Inc. announced that its experimental vaccine is 94.5% effective -- both far exceeding expectations and signaling a breakthrough in the battle against the pandemic.

The announcements mean that, pending more safety data and regulatory review, the U.S. could have two vaccines authorized for emergency use before the start of the new year, with as many as 60 million doses available this year.

The vaccines, both developed with new technology known as messenger RNA (mRNA), represent powerful tools to fight a pandemic that has infected 54 million people worldwide and killed 1.3 million.

Scientists, public health officials and investors have welcomed the recent announcements as a watershed moment that could help turn the tide of the pandemic if the full trial results pan out. However, mass roll-outs, which need regulatory approval, will not happen this year and several vaccines are seen as necessary to meet massive global needs.

Vetter said that, with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, “There are some challenges” that need to be met. The Pfizer vaccine, for example, requires “ultracold storage” and must be kept in specialized freezers (Moderna’s shot can be stored at normal fridge temperatures).

Also, both vaccines require two doses, so patients will need to remember to return for their second dose, and providers will be held to tight tracking standards to keep tabs on when the two doses get administered. The Pfizer vaccine requires a second shot after 21 days; the Moderna vaccine after 28 days.

The vaccines have limited lifespans, so there’s the added challenge of getting all the doses administered before the vaccines expire, Vetter said.

In addition, he added, since the vaccines will have emergency approval rather than full FDA approval, there will be extra-robust safety reporting requirements. Any side effects or adverse health events in patients who’ve received the vaccine must be quickly and thoroughly reported.

Thus far in the initial trials conducted by Pfizer and Moderna, Vetter said, the side effects of the vaccines have included mild to moderate fatigue, muscle aches, headaches and low grade fevers -- effects typical with most vaccines, and “nothing severe.”

To meet all the challenges, Essentia has created a vaccine subcommittee, which has been meeting weekly across the organization, to devise a plan for receiving, storing and giving the vaccine, as well as building the systems to track it. The subcommittee includes pharmacy staff, management, supply chain employees, clinicians and nurses, and IT department reps, and has been working closely with the North Dakota and Minnesota state health departments.

Forum News Service and Reuters contributed to this report.