LINEVILLE, Ala. (WBRC) – On a rainy morning in October at Lineville Baptist Church, a congregation gathers for a different kind of service. Drivers patiently wait, as one by one, they are given the signal to pull through, roll up their sleeve, and get a dose of protection from the flu.
“Hey there, how are you?” said one of the nurses with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).
“I’m good,” replied the man, who didn’t flinch when he got his vaccine. As he pulls away, another driver pulls in and the process repeats. Nearly 60 vaccines were given in the first hour of the clinic.
“We’ve done these clinics many, many times,” said Dr. Karen Landers, Assistant State Health Officer, ADPH.
She added, “Drive-thru has become a very popular process over the last number of years and actually, we started some drive thru-clinics in 2009 when we did H1N1 vaccines."
Dr. Landers said the state will again use the drive-thru method in this pandemic.
Making sure the clinic in Lineville can be replicated in all 67 counties is just one part of the preparations underway to make sure ADPH can administer a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as one gets FDA approval.
“It’s a Herculean task.”
Every state was required to submit a vaccination plan to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by mid-October, and the CDC has told states to be ready to put their plans in place by November 1.
The CDC has provided guidance to states to help in developing these plans that includes vaccine availability assumptions, but State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said they’re working around a lot of uncertainties.
“That has been one of the most difficult issues around the planning process, is not knowing the amounts.” said Dr. Harris.
The state is tracking vaccine storage capacity by location, without knowing how much space it’ll need, or how the vaccine will need to be stored.
“I think the biggest challenge is just the uncertainty about, all the possible permutations we may end up with in terms of different vaccine products, and all the different requirements associated with them.”
The “COVID-19 Vaccination Program Interim Playbook for Jurisdiction Operations” provided by the CDC outlines scenarios for unidentified Vaccine A and Vaccine B, which have different requirements for on-site storage, administration, and shipment.
“Some of them require ultra-low temperature storage, with minus 80-degree freezers. Those are few and far between in Alabama. We have reached out to people to find out where they are. We have been told Public Health does not need to purchase those or obtain those but you know, those are things that are going to be found just in certain research facilities or medical centers, maybe in a handful of other places,” explained Dr. Harris. “Some of the vaccines require minus 20-degree storage, and that’s not hard to find, there are a lot of places where that can be done. There’s at least one vaccine that won’t require refrigeration, so again it just depends on what products become available.”
Dr. Harris is confident that whichever vaccine is approved, there will initially be a limited supply.
The CDC will determine priority groups, based on suggestions from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The groups will likely include healthcare personnel, essential workers and people at increased risk for severe illness.
The preparation checklist continues with making sure vaccine providers know how to use ADPH’s electronic immunization program, estimating sizes of critical populations, and developing communication plans.
“And,” added Dr. Landers, back at the clinic in Lineville, “working with our partners in planning logistics. For example, here, a drive-thru type setting, making sure we can manage traffic, making sure if we can manage if there were an emergency unrelated to the vaccine so there are a lot of moving parts.”
Keeping it all going are hundreds of ADPH workers, who Dr. Landers believes can handle this “Herculean task.”
“Many of us have spent our whole careers training, planning and really thinking an event such as this could happen, so, the parts that have in place, the really integral of mission of Public Health, is to have the processes to respond in a situation just like we are doing right now.”