Mississippi health officials hopeful COVID-19 vaccine may be available soon

Published 5:48 am Friday, November 13, 2020

Mississippi’s top health officials said Thursday that they are hopeful a coronavirus vaccine could become available for health care workers and first responders in the state as early as next month.

State epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said Mississippi has requested an initial round of 183,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and partner BioNTech, which officials are hoping to see delivered by mid-December.

Potential vaccines are still in the trial phase and have not been approved. They must be safe and effective before approval for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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Supplies are limited, so those who are the most high-risk will get the vaccine first, Byers said.

“We need to make sure we get them protected,” Byers said of the state’s health care workers, during a virtual news conference. “Those are the individuals who are taking care of the COVID-19 patients in the hospital, in the clinical setting. That’s going to be the first push.”

With a COVID-19 vaccine drawing closer, public health officials across the country are gearing up for the biggest vaccination effort in U.S. history — a monumental undertaking that must distribute hundreds of millions of doses, prioritize who’s first in line and ensure that people who get the initial shot return for the necessary second one.

The push could begin as early as next month, when federal officials say the first vaccine may be authorized for emergency use and immediately deployed to high-risk groups, such as health care workers.

For the vaccination effort to get off the ground, state officials have been readying systems to track supplies and who has been vaccinated. That information will be fed into a national network and will be critical in giving federal health officials an up-to-date picture of vaccinations around the country.

The announcement comes as Mississippi is experiencing a surge of new confirmed coronavirus cases and hospitalizations that rival numbers seen during the peak in the state over the summer. In the last couple of weeks there have been more than 10,000 new cases in Mississippi and 150 deaths, an “astounding” number, Byers said.

Byers and state health officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said that the news they’ve received so far about trials on the new vaccine is encouraging.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have enrolled nearly 44,000 people in final testing of their vaccine. Every vaccine study is overseen by an independent “data and safety monitoring board,” or DSMB. These boards include scientists and statisticians who have no ties to the vaccine makers.

Early and incomplete test results indicate the vaccine against COVID-19 may be 90% effective, officials said Monday.

Pfizer is on track to apply later this month for emergency-use approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, once it has the necessary safety information in hand.

“Based on the initial information we have, I feel really good about it,” Dobbs said Thursday.

The state health department is already working with doctors and pharmacists to plan the rollout of the vaccine, including where it will be stored, Dobbs said. The two-part vaccine must be kept in -94 degrees Fahrenheit (-70 Celsius) conditions, presenting a challenge for health officials.

Dobbs noted Mississippi has received “minimal” financial support from the federal government to aid in the disbursement of the vaccine. He said the state will need to continue to rely on the National Guard, whose help has been vital in operating Mississippi’s testing sites.

Dobbs said even when a vaccine becomes available, people will still need to wear masks and social distance. Mississippi is now facing a “severe surge” of new coronavirus cases, he said. In DeSoto County, there were almost as many new cases as three counties in the Jackson metro area combined during the last two weeks.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves issued a mask mandate in DeSoto and 14 other counties in Mississippi that have seen the fastest increases in cases.

Dobbs said they are starting to see “extreme stress” in the state’s health care system. There were no ICU beds available in Jackson Thursday, and a very limited amount available in other parts of the state.

The state health department said Thursday that Mississippi, with a population of about 3 million, has reported more than 130,600 virus cases and at least 3,514 deaths from COVID-19 as of Wednesday evening. That’s an increase of 1,271 cases of 17 deaths from the day before.

The department said 16 people died between Nov. 5 and Nov. 11, with information from death certificates arriving later.