The COVID-19 vaccine has begun distribution to healthcare workers in DeKalb County, offering hope that a return to life before the disruptions of a pandemic may come this spring.

DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency Director Anthony Clifton said a drive-through flu shot clinic held earlier this fall at the VFW Fairgrounds was a “practice run” for how public health officials will likely provide local mass vaccinations against the coronavirus.

“Once we are able to designate open points of distribution here in DeKalb County, people will be able to drive up and receive the shot,” Clifton said. “We believe that is the best way to handle it because you don’t have to worry about masks and social distancing if you never leave your car.”

As of Dec. 28, Alabama has seen more than 347,897 cases of COVID-19 with over 4,712 deaths confirmed. DeKalb County has seen more than 6,734 confirmed cases and at least 58 deaths. Forty percent of Alabamians testing within a 14 day period ending this week got a positive diagnosis, up to 55% in DeKalb County.

According to Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH), Alabama’s initial allocation is 84,300 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine made available under the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the vaccine received from the Food and Drug Administration.

The first allocation was dispatched to a number of pre-identified locations with capacity to store the Moderna product. Moderna requires storage at -20 degrees Celsius, which allows more hospitals to manage this product.

The vaccines are allocated using a federal microplanning tool. The current allocation for administration is 50 percent for hospital healthcare workers, 15 percent for EMS providers, 15 percent for physician offices, and 20 percent for other hospital staff/healthcare workers not associated with the point of distribution. Residents of long-term care will be vaccinated through the Federal Pharmacy Program in cooperation with large chain pharmacies.

Moderna COVID-19 vaccine requires two doses separated by 28 days, and a recall system for second doses has been established. Additional vaccine doses of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are expected at weekly intervals, and the second doses of the vaccine will be included in follow-up allocations.

ADPH follows the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) guidance regarding administration to persons in Phase 1a, currently identified as healthcare providers and residents of long-term care. Phase 1b includes persons 75 years or older and frontline essential workers (fire fighters, police officers, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, teachers and educational support staff, as well as daycare workers). Phase 1c includes persons ages 65-74, persons 16-64 with high-risk medical conditions and other essential workers.

To make certain that there are no damaging side effects, those seeking vaccinations will be questioned about any pre-existing allergies. Clifton said the entire process should take about a half-hour, including time after the shot to monitor for any adverse reactions. Information regarding the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine's side effect profile indicated that some recipients had pain at the site of injection, headaches, fever, muscle aches and chills. These were seen more with the second dose than the first dose and were reported to resolve over one to two days.

The average Alabamian can anticipate availability of the vaccine by March, which would be a year since the pandemic began spreading locally.

“We are prayerful that we’ll be able to get phase one completed by the end of January, then advance to phase two,” Clifton said. He is careful to stress that timelines are subject to factors like the logistics in getting the limited supplies of the vaccines out. There is no guarantee that supplies will arrive consistently.

Once the vaccines are taken out of cold storage, a 15-hour window of opportunity opens for the doses to remain viable. With so much at stake, letting “left over” doses of the vaccines go to waste is not an option.

“We haven’t been told how the choice will be made once it is opened up to the general public, whether they’ll, hypothetically, determine the order of who is eligible first based on something like social security numbers, alphabetically or if it will be first-come first-served.

“We believe that people in DeKalb County are beginning to take the coronavirus more seriously. I’m anxious to see the demand for the vaccines here. My gut tells me that once we get into mass distribution to the general population, the process will be neat and orderly here, conducted over a period of time with a steady supply of doses rather than us expecting to become overrun. My intuition tells me we are unlikely to become overrun.”

Clifton bases this expectation partially on how people have responded to COVID-19 so far. “People have been very understanding. We continue to ask for everyone’s patience and understanding during this process,” he said.

At this time, there is no indication that anyone will be forced to get vaccinated, but Clifton said it is important for the majority of citizens to participate. “If one person out of 10 gets the vaccine, that’s not good because that risks nine people infecting each other with the coronavirus,” he said.

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