A national drill to test the delivery, receipt and redistribution of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine started on Monday and will continue through the week, testing coordination between the two hubs, one on St. Thomas and one on St. Croix, that have the required ultra-cold refrigeration storage, officials announced on Monday.
For the drill, the territory is scheduled to receive 975 “doses” of a substance representing the vaccine, and the movement of those doses between St. Croix and St. Thomas will be tested, along with its redistribution to local providers.
During Monday’s weekly Government House press briefing, Territorial Epidemiologist Dr. Esther Ellis said this procedure will be in place until the approval of the Moderna vaccine, which requires extremely cold storage – between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius (35 to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit) – which will allow most providers to receive shipments directly.
To conduct the drill, the Health Department has collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control, Federal Emergency Management Agency, V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency and the V.I. National Guard, which will help execute the delivery of the vaccine from the hubs to the “spokes,” or providers, then report the challenges and successes.
According to national news reports, the Food and Drug Administration has scheduled a meeting to review Pfizer’s vaccine on Dec. 10. If the use of the vaccine is authorized, shipping could begin within 24 hours.
At Monday’s news conference, Ellis said distribution will be carried out in phases once the real vaccine hits the ground, first to “populations deemed critical,” including clinical staff, first responders, residents with immune-compromised conditions and those in long-term care facilities.
“The subsequent phases will include the elderly, behavioral health patients, specifically the chronically homeless and incarcerated persons,” Ellis said. “By the spring of 2021, the vaccine will be available for the wider public and children.”
After lowering expectations for how many millions of vaccines they can produce this year, both Pfizer and Moderna expect to ramp up their manufacturing early next year, according to national news reports. As with other vaccines, mass production has been tedious, as the process requires sterile conditions and precise control of temperature and humidity.
Until a vaccine is widely available, Health Department officials encourage residents to get the flu shot and keep following public health protocols, including washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing, Ellis said.
As of Monday’s press conference, Health officials said they were tracking 55 active cases, including one patient on a ventilator at the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix and another at Schneider Regional Medical Center, who is not on a ventilator. There have been 28,398 individuals tested to date territorywide, with 26,783 of those tests coming back negative and 1,544 positives and 23 deaths have been recorded in the territory.
During the news conference, Government House Communications Director Richard Motta Jr. said concerns from the community about mask-wearing for boaters while at sea has also pushed the government’s COVID-19 task force to reexamine its policies.
“The task force is reexamining the policy to determine whether adjustments at this time are warranted,” Motta said. “Bear in mind that everything we do is ultimately for the protection of the public health of V.I. residents. Our regulations are already considerably less stringent than other boating destinations in the Caribbean.”
Meanwhile, non-essential government employees are working remotely for the next two weeks – until Dec. 13 – as COVID-19 cases continue to surge on the mainland. According to officials, the influx of visitors during the holiday season could lead to an uptick, and Ellis added that larger numbers locally are being seen in the manufacturing sector, churches and government agencies.