When can Delawareans expect to get a COVID-19 vaccine?
While this week's promising news about a potentially effective vaccine for COVID-19 has offered some hope, it's unclear when any Delawarean would get it.
A limited amount of the vaccine could be available for high-risk groups as early as the end of December, but it's likely to be widely available by the late spring to early summer, health officials said.
"It’s a large quantity of vaccine that needs to be produced to vaccinate our nation," said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, during Gov. John Carney's coronavirus press briefing on Tuesday afternoon. "I just don’t anticipate that any earlier than March, and I think that’s optimistic.”
Some optimism is warranted because the biopharmaceutical company Pfizer and its collaborator BioNTech released early study results Monday indicating their vaccine prevented more than 90% of infections with the virus that causes COVID-19.
The news comes as the number of COVID-19 cases in Delaware has surged to levels unseen since mid-May, with no sign of quelling. It's unclear if Delawareans will face repercussions for the surge, which state officials have long said could be limited if people wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Pfizer’s announcement comes as it completes its final phase of clinical trials, which includes testing the vaccine in one or more large trials of people randomly given either the vaccine or a placebo.
The manufacturer still needs to jump through some more hoops, including getting it reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, before it can be green-lighted for emergency use. A group called the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices also has to review the vaccine.
Health officials don't know at this point how long the rest of the process will take, and while the Pfizer announcement is promising, it doesn't mean the FDA review process will go any faster, said Delaware Division of Public Health spokeswoman Andrea Wojcik in an email.
Depending on how the FDA review process goes, the U.S. could see a vaccine distributed in limited quantities as early as the end of December, she said.
"It is our understanding that production of the vaccine in clinical trial has been co-occurring with the trial itself, so that if the (emergency use authorization) is issued, distribution could begin quickly," Wojcik said. "It is anticipated that it will likely be spring before a vaccine is more widely available."
Even once one does become available, it's unlikely that everyone will be able to get the shot right away. Health care workers and other first responders will get first dibs, Rattay said in September. High-risk populations, including people over 65 and residents in long-term care facilities, will also be among the first in line.
When addressing the vaccine timeline on Tuesday, Rattay reiterated the expectation that the first doses could be available in December, and said the state "will be ready whenever it comes."
Health officials warn that, once it does come, that won't mean the pandemic will suddenly be over.
"The availability of a vaccine does not mean that people will immediately be able to stop wearing face coverings, or stop social distancing," Wojcik said. "There are many unknowns still about how long the protection for a vaccine will last, whether it will prevent severe illness versus mild illness, and how long it will take to reach widespread or ‘herd’ immunity in the general population.
"Even those who initially get the vaccine will be recommended to continue to utilize face coverings and social distancing. These important protective measures will need to continue in order for us to achieve optimal protection from the virus once the vaccine is available."
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Delaware had 316 new cases on Saturday, the most in a single day since May 15, according to state health officials. There were 313 additional cases Sunday and 208 on Monday.
Delaware has now had six consecutive days with more than 200 new cases for the first time ever. Last week, the average daily COVID-19 cases in Delaware increased to the red and most severe zone: "significant community spread."
That's in line with the rest of the country. All 50 states are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Cases are rising as the weather gets colder and people are spending more time indoors, which is where the virus more easily spreads.
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Carney's spokesman Jonathan Starkey said on Friday that the governor is considering new restrictions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. He did not offer specifics.
Carney said last month that another shutdown similar to what the state suffered through earlier this year would not be sustainable.
During the Tuesday press briefing, Carney would not offer specifics as to exactly what restrictions could be on the horizon in the First State if positive cases keep going up.
He cited indoor gatherings at people's homes as one of the primary ways that the virus seems to be spreading in the state, according to interviews that public health workers have had with residents who contract the virus. Officials worry about the indoor gatherings continuing as the holidays get closer.
"We might have to do something that gets the attention of folks so that it’s more top of mind,” Carney said, without specifying what that would look like. "The unstructured indoor environments are the ones that are harder to get to but, it seems to be, where the greatest risk is as opposed to indoor environments where you can impose restrictions, like restaurants."
Brandon Holveck and USA TODAY contributed to this report.
Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2281 or email@example.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.