A collected sample is dropped into a medical bag as members of the Wisconsin National Guard medical team assist with free COVID-19 drive-thru testing at Blackhawk Technical College.

Local health officials say Rock County’s first batch of COVID-19 vaccines could arrive at health care facilities during the last week of December or first week of January.

But those vaccines will be reserved for a small population—mainly health care workers—and several steps have to be taken to allow that to happen.

Officials from the Rock County Public Health Department, Mercyhealth and SSM Health gave an update on the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday during a conference call with members of Forward Janesville.

Much of the call focused around vaccines—when they will get here, how they will be distributed and whether they will be safe.

For vaccines to be distributed in December, these things have to happen:

  • The federal Food and Drug Administration has to approve the first vaccine it is presented, one created by pharmaceutical company Pfizer, for emergency use. The agency is expected to review Pfizer’s application Thursday.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advisory committee for immunization practices must review the data and make recommendations on how and to whom the vaccines should be given.
  • The CDC must publish a report with final recommendations for providers.

One recommendation officials anticipate from the CDC is not to vaccinate children younger than 18, pregnant women or women who are breast feeding, said Michelle Bailey, assistant director of the Rock County Public Health Department.

Meanwhile, state officials are setting up eight hubs across the state to store the Pfizer vaccine, which requires ultra-cold storage at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Vaccine packages will be broken up at the hubs and then transported to providers.

Providers that enrolled with the state by Nov. 25 will receive the first round of shipments, which likely will not include the full amount of vaccine requested, Bailey said.

Representatives from Mercyhealth and SSM Health said they expect to be among the first providers to receive vaccine shipments, but they don’t know how much they will receive or what day they will get it.

It is up to health care systems to further prioritize vaccines among health care workers, Bailey said.

Eric Thornton, president of SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville, said health care workers at highest risk of COVID-19 exposure will be vaccinated first.

Similar processes will be followed at Mercyhealth, said Ladd Udy, vice president of value-based care and population health.

An advisory committee for the CDC has recommended health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities get vaccinated first.

Long-term care facilities in Rock County will work with a federal pharmacy program. The program connects the government with pharmacies, including Walgreens and CVS, to distribute vaccines, Bailey said.

The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses 21 days apart, and Moderna’s vaccine—which is expected to be reviewed soon—requires two doses 28 days apart. The CDC is withholding enough doses to make sure everyone can receive a second dose on time, Bailey said.

Current predictions say the general public—people younger than 65 who do not have chronic illnesses and are not immunocompromised—likely will start getting vaccinated in early summer of 2021, Bailey said.

Officials are awaiting guidance on when providers can start vaccinating people in other priority groups, some of which include people older than 65, essential workers (a category that is still vague) and people who live in various group settings.

Udy described the expedited vaccine approval, if it rolls out as planned, as a “tremendous” public health accomplishment.

Some people are concerned about the safety of a vaccine that is being moved along so quickly, Bailey said.

She assures people that the COVID-19 vaccines being floated for approval have gone through every step and review that other vaccines have gone through, just more quickly.

Bailey and other local health officials do not have any concerns about vaccine safety, based on the information available. The process, she said, is more transparent than production of many other vaccines.