The vaccine race is heating up in the final weeks of 2020. Photo via Shutterstock
The vaccine race is heating up in the final weeks of 2020.

A Kalamazoo production plant is gearing up to distribute tens of thousands of vaccines doses across the country.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—As the Pfizer plant in Kalamazoo prepares to mass-produce one of the two 95% effective vaccines for the pandemic coronavirus, Michiganders look at what the next phase of the pandemic response will be. 

Few Michiganders have had the vaccine change their views on simple pandemic protections like mask wearing and social distancing. Michiganders like Jessi McKenna and Maureen Carter pointed to other public health issues like seasonal flus and other recurring infections as reasons they might never give their masks up, while others said they would keep wearing them until told it was no longer necessary by a trusted public health official like Dr. Anthony Fauci. For yet others like Davy Greentree, the mask is just routine.   

Acacia Williams, a school librarian in Farmington, is one not hanging up her mask just yet. 

“The recommendation is still to continue wearing a mask, so that’s what I’ll do—I think it’s going to take a while to feel comfortable without one,” she told The ‘Gander. “As far as my day to day life, though, it absolutely changes things. With a vaccine, I could send my child back to school, and I could go back to work and feel safe about it.”

Even with Pfizer and Moderna nearing the public deployment of vaccines, the home stretch of the crisis isn’t a sprint, cautioned Dr. Matt Longjohn, a Kalamazoo-based public health expert. 

The biggest concern Longjohn told The ‘Gander about is the need for a coherent national strategy to deploy the vaccines. Leaving it up to the states would result in 50 different approaches to vaccination when the margins for error are small.

“Distribution strategies will have to vary, depending on which vaccines are being deployed,” he explained. “This is especially true when a dissemination plan is built to address health inequities. In those plans, initial phases of deployment should prioritize groups of people with the highest risks. 

“Data show we need to target health care workers, people who are spending time in long-term care facilities, and groups of people with abnormally high risk of serious illness. The folk in this last category often live in places with poor health care capacity.”

RELATED: Michigan Saw 100,000 COVID-19 Cases in Two Weeks. Here’s How It Happened.

Keeping Cool

Longjohn also pointed to vaccine cold chains as an obstacle to getting those most vulnerable vaccinated. A cold chain is the systems put in place to keep vaccines at necessary low temperatures and prevent them from spoiling en route to where they need to be. Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines need some measure of cold chain preparation as part of the logistics of their vaccination efforts, but Pfizer’s in particular needs to be kept especially chilly. 

Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be kept at nearly -100 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s about 90 degrees colder than most vaccines, and is the coldest any vaccine cold chain has ever needed to be. Though Moderna’s vaccine doesn’t need to be kept as glacially cold, the Pfizer vaccine is likely to be a faster production.

This has left public health officials worldwide scrambling for dry ice, CNN reports. Dry ice is exceptionally cold, and combined with isothermic storage boxes can keep the Pfizer vaccine from spoiling for two weeks. But dry ice manufacturers worry about bottlenecks, with some already having sold their entire production capacity. 

“The rural and the urban areas in any country in the world are not ready to manage this vaccine today,” Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, told CNN. “So, who is prepared in the world? No one.”

Pfizer is presently testing it’s supply chain and is optimistic about being able to keep their vaccine frigid, though. CEO Albert Bourla, said he has “zero concerns” about cold chain requirements for the vaccine.

Pfizer is also optimistic about a room-temperature vaccine in late 2021. 

Preparing for the Next COVID

Still, Longjohn sees a lot to be optimistic about with the worldwide reaction to the coronavirus. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were produced in record-shattering time thanks to a concerted global effort to defeat a novel disease. Moreover, the efficacy rate of those vaccines—95%—is considerably higher than most vaccines considered to be highly effective, like seasonal flu vaccines

“We all needed to get this good news,” said Longjohn. “It’s the first real sign that gives me confidence we’ll be in a better situation a year from now.”

Longjohn also sees the coronavirus as a chance to strengthen public health in general. While the coronavirus is a pandemic of a once-in-a-century magnitude, there have been plenty of other public health crises, he said, ranging from the zika virus to Dengue fever to Ebola. Deploying a vaccine for the coronavirus gives communities worldwide a chance to bolster public health infrastructure for the next pandemic, be it one of this magnitude or something smaller like the swine flu.

“In any scenario, we must build up our community health system while deploying the vaccine,” he told The ‘Gander. “We need to get money to states, counties, cities, health systems, [Federally Qualified Health Centers], and any other organizations that can help provide for the workforce, infrastructure, and coordination we will need. Unfortunately, we have to expect this will not be the last community health crisis we will face.”

Echoing sentiments from Michiganders like Williams and Gov. Grertchen Whitmer, Longjohn encouraged people to return to the sacrifices and public health measures we saw be remarkably effective in the early days of the pandemic. This time, hopefully, for the last time thanks to stronger federal leadership and the remarkable work of scientists worldwide.  

“This time there’s good reason to think our sacrifices will be more meaningful because a longer term solution is coming in the form of a vaccine,” he said. “Our sacrifices will be more fully  leveraged by a better federal response. The adults will be back in charge.”

READ: Gov. Whitmer’s Tips for Keeping Michiganders Safe This Holiday Season