A vaccine for COVID-19 might not be available to most Marylanders for six-eight months after a treatment receives emergency authorization from the federal government, according to Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson.
Ferguson, speaking during a Joint Legislative COVID-19 Work Group Wednesday, said his assessment is based on discussions with Johns Hopkins researchers who are working on one of the vaccines.
“While there has truly been remarkable progress on the vaccine front, the distribution of the vaccine upon emergency authorization, licensing and then full licensing is still in the absolute best case scenario, six to eight months from the date of emergency authorization,” said Ferguson. “So in a perfect world where we would have emergency authorization in October or November, that starts the clock for another six to eight months before we can realistically believe that a vaccine distribution program is going to be able to reopen our economy.”
Ferguson described the discussion with the unnamed researchers as “pretty eye-opening to me. I think we looked at this vaccine as a solution but the logistics that go into it are enormous and Herculean.”
Top state health officials agreed and said they are already beginning to work on how to distribute the vaccine, some of which will require “ultra-cold” storage.
Acting state Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan told lawmakers that the distribution of any vaccine will likely be slow following any emergency use authorization issued by the Food and Drug Administration and said the “first shipments will have limited numbers.”
“We know that we’re not going to get, at least initially, sufficient quantity to be able to deploy it out to our entire high-risk population immediately, but it will take some time to be able to get the vaccine out and distribute it to the high-risk populations,” said Chan.
Final guidelines on who will receive the vaccine first is still under consideration at the federal level.
Chan said she anticipates that high risk populations — those at the most risk of the most severe complications of the disease such as the elderly — as well as health care workers will be among the first to be offered vaccinations. The department will also likely lean on experience gained from the 2009 flu pandemic, she said.
The vaccinations will likely require two doses.
Additionally, Chan said the state is working on the logistics of distributing vaccines, some of which will be required to be stored at minus 70 degrees celsius, a temperature that is more than three times as cold as a standard home freezer.
The availability of a vaccine has, like other issues related to the pandemic, become increasingly political.
South Korean tests
State health officials also provided details on how the 500,000 COVID-19 tests purchased from South Korea have been used.
Dennis Schrader, the health department’s chief operating officer, said the tests have helped the state continue its program at a time when surges in other parts of the country increased the time for results.
“Those tests have been a godsend to us, particularly back in July and August when we saw that national burst in the South and the West and Southwest. It buffered those turnaround times for us,” said Schrader.
In all, Schrader said the state received 500,000 tests and has about 290,000 left.
Of the original batch, about 130,000 tests were supplied to CIAN Diagnostics in Frederick.That organization has used more than 72,000 of the tests as of Sept. 15, according to Schrader.
The balance, about 370,000 tests, went to the new lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, which has used 138,000 as of Tuesday.
The briefing was the clearest look yet into the use of the tests since the state announced the $9 million purchase at an April news conference on the front steps of the governor’s official residence. The purchase came at a time when states were scrambling to find their own supplies in the absence of federal assistance.
In July, Hogan said he had swapped out as many as 400,000 of the original LabGun tests produced by LabGenomics for a better version.
Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties, Wednesday urged Schrader and the department to begin planning for acquiring additional tests as well as supplies for any vaccines before they become available.
“We could easily see those (remaining tests) being gone by say the end of the calendar year,” said Lam.
Schrader said the original batch of South Korean tests was purchased at a time when the diagnostic tool was scarce and many states were relying on the federal government for their supplies. Instead, Maryland went out on its own.
Now, the plan is to use the remaining tests to augment the private testing facilities, Schrader said.
“I think we’re in a different place today and the private sector appears to be managing their inventory and supply chain now so that they’re able to provide testing,” said Schrader. “We still want to maintain this buffer for a possible surge.”
Lawmakers also expressed concern about the thoroughness of contact tracing — the effort to determine the people who have potentially come into contact with a person who has tested positive for the virus. Such efforts are seen as important to holding back the disease by identifying people who potentially should self-isolate and be tested before they infect others.
Sen. James Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, called health department reports showing contract tracers could reach only 50% of those who contracted the virus.
The figure “strikes me as an extraordinarily low rate and reflective of what I’ve heard anecdotally that our tracing system isn’t really working.”
“I appreciate you can’t get perfect compliance,” said Rosapepe. “But this is six months into the pandemic and contact tracing is critical to this and reaching less than 50% of the people, we’ve got a big system problem here.”
Maryland and local governments have hired additional employees or contracted with private companies to do contract tracing. But questions remain about those efforts.
One website referenced by a number of local health officers reports that the state has half of the total number of contact tracers needed. CovidActNow.org calls the current level insufficient “even if the program is run efficiently.”
State health officials said they are limited by how many people chose to answer calls from contact tracers and whether or not those who will complete an interview decline to name people they’ve may have been around.
Maryland Health Secretary Robert “Bobby” Neall said the state is continuing to run public service announcements asking the public to provide information to contract tracers.
“That’s why we’re on television asking people to pick up the phone,” said Neall. “A lot of people are looking at it and Caller ID and they blow off the call. The only other alternative we have is to send someone from the local health department to try to find this person. We’re trying to educate the public, saying ‘this is not the IRS, this is not the police. We’re trying to save your life.’”