University is planning its vaccine distribution strategy

The University of Miami is expected to receive some coronavirus vaccines this month. Photo: Associated Press
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

The University of Miami is expected to receive some coronavirus vaccines this month. Photo: Associated Press

University is planning its vaccine distribution strategy

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
Leaders are poised to inoculate front-line health care workers once the first COVID-19 vaccines are available.

Pending government approval, some of the University of Miami Health System’s front-line professionals could be inoculated with the first COVID-19 vaccine starting in mid-December, administrators said.

The University’s COVID-19 Vaccine Taskforce is creating areas on the medical campus where the vaccines will be delivered, and it is starting to reach out to front-line teams that could be first in line, should they choose to accept the vaccine, said Dr. Roy E. Weiss, the University’s chief medical officer for COVID-19.

Although a third surge in coronavirus cases and deaths is roiling South Florida, Weiss was optimistic that if the vaccine is approved and distributed, it will help the nation slow and eventually, stop the pandemic.

“Over the centuries, vaccines have been essentially responsible for eradicating infectious diseases, so we have a great deal of hope that the end of the pandemic is near when we are able to do mass immunizations and prevent the virus from reproducing,” said Weiss, who is also chair of the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine.

In a message to the University last week, President Julio Frenk, a global public health expert, and Weiss explained their plans to distribute the first vaccines once they are received. However, the first vaccine up for approval, which is made by American pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the German company BioNTech, must first gain emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A meeting is set for Dec. 10 to determine whether the two-dose vaccine will gain that approval. There is now a second meeting scheduled Dec. 17 to determine the fate of a second COVID-19 vaccine produced by Moderna. The Miller School led the Miami arm of the Moderna clinical trial and is still enrolling patients in another vaccine trial by Janssen.

“We at the University of Miami are proud to have collaborated on the vaccine trials that are bringing the world to this new and hopeful phase,” Frenk noted. “That said, vaccine distribution will take some time, so we must continue to be vigilant and strictly adhere to current public health guidelines.” 

News reports indicate that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been more than 90 percent effective in protecting those inoculated from getting COVID-19. Should the Pfizer vaccine gain approval next week, it will be shipped to U.S. cities, including Miami, within hours, Weiss said.

Frenk and Weiss explained that the vaccine will be distributed in phases based on the quantity of vaccine received and an employee’s risk of exposure, as determined by state regulations. However, Weiss said that they are still waiting for a final determination from state officials about how many doses Florida will get and who exactly will be included in the first phase. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that front-line health care workers as well as residents of long-term care facilities be included in the first phase of vaccination, but states must make the final decision.

While many Americans have voiced skepticism about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines because of the quick turnaround, Weiss and Frenk noted that the FDA’s approval process is rigorous and requires that clinical trials include 30,000 people to demonstrate that the inoculations are safe and effective.

“There are very highly qualified, unbiased scientists looking at the data carefully and the FDA is a conservative and cautious group when it comes to approvals, being sure to protect the safety and health of all Americans,” Weiss added.

Both leaders encouraged University employees who are eligible for the vaccine to take advantage of it.

“The availability of a safe and proven vaccine is the single most important development in our ability to control the COVID pandemic,” Frenk and Weiss wrote in their message. “However, vaccines are only effective if they are taken.”

Vaccines work by preparing the body’s immune system to recognize and fight specific viruses. What’s unique about the COVID-19 vaccines is that they are using a new strategy focused on messenger RNA, Weiss said. Messenger RNA is like a blueprint for proteins found in the novel coronavirus, so that if a person is exposed to the virus, the body can recognize the viral proteins and immediately attack them with antibodies, he added.

“Once the vaccine takes effect, the immune system of the body is revved up to be able to recognize this intruder because it’s already been primed to fight against the virus-specific protein. Therefore, once the body is exposed to the virus, it is neutralized by these antibodies,” Weiss said, adding that it can take weeks after the first injection for the antibodies to be at a sufficient level, so with the Pfizer vaccine, it is suggested to get a booster 21 days after the first injection. “Until the antibodies are sufficiently high, one must continue to be diligent and wear a mask, keep physical distancing, and practice good hand hygiene.”

The news about vaccine distribution comes as Jackson Memorial Hospital, where many physicians with the University’s Miller School of Medicine practice and train students, was chosen as just one of five hospital sites across Florida to receive shipments of the Pfizer vaccine once it gains authorization from the FDA. University leaders are working closely with Jackson Health System leaders to coordinate the rollout and are hoping to gain more shipments in late December and early 2021 that can be shared with a growing number of students, faculty, and staff as more vaccines are produced.

“It’s not science fiction anymore—this will take place in real time on a timeline of months, not years,” Weiss said. “Although it might not have been fast enough for some of us, it clearly has been quite fast from the time that the disease was recognized until a vaccine was available.”

To answer questions and provide updated information to the University community about the vaccination process, administrators will hold a series of virtual town halls throughout the next few months. The first town hall will be for medical employees—since they will be the first vaccine recipients—at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 15. Registration information will be provided to medical employees later this week, and details on future town halls will be provided as soon as they are available.

For more immediate information, the CDC has a vaccinations website that is being continually updated about national vaccine distribution plans. Visit it here.