San Mateo County health officials say planning is underway as two COVID-19 vaccines are under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and could be distributed to limited groups as early as Dec. 7.

“This pandemic will end with a vaccine, and it’s on the horizon now,” Deputy Chief of Health Srija Srinivasan said at a late-November press briefing.

County Health Chief Louise Rogers said her staff is working with the state to get the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, if approved, out to a subset of residents starting mid-December. The groups set to receive initial doses will be defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will likely include frontline health care workers and first responders in the initial phase, followed by people with high-risk medical conditions, adults older than 65, and other essential workers in the second phase.

White House officials have said that individual states will have the final say on the priority list, and will receive doses based on the size of their adult population. On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California is set to receive 327,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine in December, positioning California to be a major distributor. California state officials have said they’re likely to follow the CDC’s recommendations for priority.

Rogers said the county health team has offered to help with distribution and is working now to provide information to the state about its infrastructure, noting which care providers, pharmacies, congregate living facilities and private health care partners will be enlisted to help with distribution — and what type of freezer capacity they have for those doses that require colder temperatures. The county is also assessing how many county residents will qualify for the initial distribution.

According to Anand Chabra, section chief of COVID-19 Mass Vaccination and medical director of Family Health Services at the county Health Department, the county will work with employers and health care providers to identify individuals who will qualify for initial doses of the vaccine.

“There is an understanding that medically high-risk and older adults will certainly be among the earliest populations to receive the vaccine, and so working out the process for that and the infrastructure for reaching those people is very important and a priority,” Rogers said.

Srinivasan did not have an estimate on how many of the state’s dosages will be distributed locally in the first or subsequent phases of distribution. Srinivasan said some doses will also go to private health care providers for distribution, but, because of limited supply, most residents will have to wait for their shots until mid-2021. Rogers said the county is also contemplating using its existing testing infrastructure for mass vaccination events once the vaccine is widely available. According to Chabra, the county anticipates that the vaccine will be administered by licensed health care professionals who typically provide vaccines.

Equity and access for hard-to-reach populations is a priority for the county and state, which has created a community advisory committee to make sure the vaccine is distributed equitably. Chabra wrote in an email to the Review that the county plans to rely on its community-based organization partners for outreach and information, as well as public health providers like San Mateo Medical Center to expand access to the vaccine. According to Chabra, the vaccines will be offered at no cost, except for an administration fee, which can be waived for low-income residents. As for the costs to the county of providing vaccination infrastructure, Chabra wrote, the county is counting on Congress.

“We hope that Congress’ consideration of increased economic support for state and local governments on the front lines of the pandemic will include the funding needed to fulfill key roles in vaccine dissemination,” Chabra wrote.

The eventual distribution of the vaccine to the general public will not mark the end of precautions due to the virus, Srinivasan said. She expects social distancing and mask mandates to be in place through next fall, as greater portions of residents gain access to the vaccine and as the multiple doses required are administered.

Rogers and Srinivasan said they are confident in the safety of both the vaccines currently under review.

“The data is really encouraging about safety and efficacy,” Srinivasan said. “We want to make sure that this is a vaccine that gets to everyone so we can protect ourselves.”

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