Delivering a hopeful, rather than a dire message, for a change, Governor Roy Cooper held a briefing yesterday to tout North Carolina’s readiness to handle the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine that may start on a limited basis as early as later this month.

Citing “newfound hope,” the Governor spoke of the “remarkable early results” achieved in the clinical trials of two COVID-19 vaccines—those of Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna—saying that the results were “better than health experts ever hoped for.”

Both vaccines, whose manufacturers reported effectiveness in trial subjects of 90 to 95 percent, are currently being evaluated for approval on an Emergency Use Authorization basis by the U.S. Food and Administration. That approval is expected to come soon. 

“North Carolina is working hard to hit the ground running when these vaccines are approved and shipped,” the Governor avowed. “For months our Department of Health and Human Services has been developing a plan to distribute the vaccines so that we can get past this pandemic. . . .

“But,” he continued, “there is still a lot of work to do to get the vaccines from the manufacturers to our healthcare providers, like hospitals and health departments, and then ultimately to each of us.”

Distribution in such a “big state,” with “rural areas that stretch for hundreds of miles,” the Governor said, poses many “challenges of geography,” all of which the State’s chief executive seemed confident would be met.

North Carolina is preparing for Pfizer’s vaccine, not Moderna’s, he said.

The Pfizer vaccine is administered in two injections, 21 days apart, and must be stored long-term at a “super-cold” minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the latest media reports.

The Moderna vaccine, developed by a Cambridge, Mass.-based biotechnology company, also requires two doses for maximum effectiveness, which must be administered 28 days apart. It, too, needs to be frozen at below-zero temperatures if it is stored for a long time, but it reportedly can be refrigerated for up to 30 days before use.

Scientific data about Pfizer vaccine’s safety and effectiveness in clinical trials are expected to be available for independent scrutiny in the next few days, according to Dr. Cohen, who said that the “preliminary data look very strong.” Scientists nationwide have been waiting to read more than optimistic press releases from the manufacturer.

Both vaccines, as well as a third manufactured by AstraZeneca in collaboration with Oxford University, are mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) vaccines made with new technology. The Pfizer vaccine works, Dr. Cohen explained, by triggering the body’s immune system to make the antibodies it needs to combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. The RNA molecule, as we understand it, encodes a protein in the cell to which the immune system reacts.

The vaccine is “not a quick fix,” Dr. Cohen cautioned, adding that it will “take several months” for the vaccine to be available to anyone who would like it.

North Carolina submitted a draft vaccine distribution plan to the federal government in October that consists of phases. Said Dr. Cohen: “We’ve been hard at work preparing for this moment.”

The first to receive North Carolina’s “limited supply” of COVID-19 vaccine will be high-risk health-care workers in hospital settings, according to the NCDHHS Secretary. Vaccine priority will then progress to residents of long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, and people with at least two at-risk chronic conditions.

The vaccine will be free to everyone who receives it, Governor Cooper stressed, regardless of an individual’s insurance.

The Beacon will give more attention to vaccination in North Carolina when it becomes a reality. In the meantime, we note that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are steadily increasing daily in the state, as is the positivity rate.

As of today, 5,366 North Carolinians have died as a result of the coronavirus-2.

Today’s NCDHHS dashboard reported 4,199 new cases and a record-high 2,039 hospitalizations, along with an 11.4 percent positivity rate.

Dr. Cohen cited the “worrisome” number of emergency department visits being made by people with COVID-19 symptoms and said, “Too many people are becoming seriously ill with COVID.”

We should expect to see the numbers go even higher as the Thanksgiving effect becomes evident. That trend should hold true in Dare County, too.

We will publish a Dare County COVID-19 roundup at the end of the week. In her update yesterday, Dr. Sheila Davies, Director of the Dare County Dept. of Health and Human Services, identified the Dare County resident whose COVID-19-related death was reported Monday as a person in “their” 70s.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 12/2/20

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