Dr. Rachel Levine

FILE - In this May 29, 2020, file photo, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, meets with the media at The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa. (Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News via AP)

HARRISBURG – Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said Thursday that if things progress as planned, the initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine could be available as soon as December.

The state will have challenges getting this first COVID-19 vaccine likely to hit the market into rural areas of the state, Levine said.

Plus, the vaccine now in third-phase clinical trials by Pfizer requires being stored at minus-80 degrees centigrade, she said.

“There are significant logistical challenges,” Levine said.

When the Pfizer vaccine is the only option, people will be required to travel to larger medical facilities to get vaccinated, because of the challenges involved in storing the vaccine, she said. In addition, the vaccine must be given in two doses, she said.

Levine said it will be more manageable to get a Moderna vaccine distributed more widely across the state because it can be stored more easily.

“As we roll out the Moderna vaccine, there will be more opportunity to get the vaccine into rural areas,” Levine said, adding that state officials expect the Moderna vaccine to hit the market “on the heels” of the Pfizer vaccine. Individuals would need to get two doses of the Moderna vaccine, as well, Levine said.

As the state prepares to distribute the COVID-19 vaccines, officials continue to warn that coronavirus cases are surging at an unprecedented rate.

The state announced Thursday that 7,126 new positive cases of COVID-19 and 2,952 people were hospitalized with coronavirus, including 659 people in intensive care.

Levine announced earlier this week that she was strengthening the state’s mask mandate to include the requirement that people wear masks, even when they are inside personal dwellings if there are visitors present. Levine also announced that out-of-state travelers must get tested for COVID before returning or quarantine for 14 days.

Gov. Tom Wolf joined a group of Northeastern governors to call on colleges to test students before dismissing them for the holidays out of concern that students will bring COVID home with them.

Because there will be a limited supply of vaccine initially, the state will distribute the vaccine in phases until there is enough vaccine available to make it available to everyone, Levine said.

“Not everyone will be able to get a vaccine right away,” she said.

Under the state’s vaccine distribution plan, the first priority will be given to health care workers in emergency departments, intensive care units, and working on hospital floors, in long-term care facilities; emergency medical service first responders; and residents of long-term care facilities, according to a copy of the plan released by the Department of Health on Thursday.

Once more vaccines are available, health care workers in other settings and people who work in jobs deemed “critical” will be eligible for vaccines.

Those critical jobs include a wide range of professions, including those who manufacture personal protective equipment, those who work in food-processing plants, teachers, day workers and bus drivers, according to the department’s vaccine distribution plan.

A review of state plans by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Pennsylvania’s plan to distribute to front-line health care workers first is typical among plans being rolled out in other states.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has also announced a plan to partner with pharmacy chains and independent pharmacies to make the vaccine as widely available as possible.

“We are leveraging the existing private sector infrastructure to get safe and effective vaccines supported by Operation Warp Speed into communities and into arms as quickly as possible with no out-of-pocket costs,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “The vast majority of Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy,” he said.

That deal would make vaccines available at pharmacies, including Rite Aid, CVS, Walmart and grocery store pharmacies, including Giant, Weis Markets, Wegmans and Tops.

Levine said the state will need more financial support from the federal government to cover the cost of distributing the vaccine once it becomes available.

Levine said the federal government has provided only about $340 million for the states to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

The Kaiser Family Fund’s analysis noted that “it is estimated that at least $6-8 billion is needed” though President-elect Joe Biden has said his administration would seek to spend $25 billion rolling out vaccines.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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