HARRISBURG — The key to getting past the coronavirus pandemic are the vaccines, according to Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine.

“The vaccines have been developed through Operation Warp Speed, and it really is a medical triumph that two safe and effective, I repeat safe and effective, vaccines have been developed in less than a year,” said Levine during a virtual public hearing on the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines in rural Pennsylvania held by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania Board of Directors.

Levine said this is because new vaccine technology has been being worked on for the last five or 10 years that came to fruition with both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“But in addition it is an expensive, but really remarkable funding formula where federal government pays these pharmaceutical companies all at the same time to work to develop vaccines, and they came through,” said Levine.

Levine noted that there are two more vaccines in the immediate pipeline that are either completed or completing clinical trials — the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Johnson and Johnson Janssen vaccine.

“We are hoping that this spring, they will actually submit their data to the FDA and the CDC for their evaluation,” said Levine. “Then, there is actually two more in the pipeline, but we have less information about those.”

Levine said she believes the science is very clear about the safety and effectiveness of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“They have gone through robust clinical trials,” said Levine. “Vaccines often will have years and years of analysis before the FDA will do a full licensure, and so there was no way of course that they could do that because of the severity of the pandemic now. But, we have in medicine, complete confidence about the safety and the effectiveness of the vaccine, and there is no evidence of any politicization that has influenced the process at all.”

Though they both involve the same type of biological mechanisms, Levine said there are differences between Pfizer and Moderna. One of the biggest differences that influences its distribution is the storage requirements.

She said the Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at minus 80 degrees Centigrade or Celsius, that’s an ultra-cold environment. The Moderna vaccine can be basically kept frozen as any freezer would have.

“That has certainly influenced our ability to distribute it and where these vaccines go,” said Levine.

Operation Warp Speed informs the DOH a week or two ahead of time what they estimate the state’s allocation will be on a weekly basis.

For the last five weeks the state has been concentrating on the first phase of the rollout plan — Phase 1A, which includes health-care personnel, employees and residents of long-term care facilities, emergency services personnel and other first contact workers are scheduled to be vaccinated.

The latest plan adds a Phase 1C, and moves the general public from Phase 3 to Phase 2. There is no longer a Phase 3, said Levine.

Phase 1B targets people aged 75 and older, people living in or working in other congregate care facilities, USPS workers and first responders. It also includes essential frontline employees in the following sectors:

  • Food and agriculture
  • Manufacturing
  • Grocery store workers
  • Education
  • Clergy and “essential support” for houses of worship
  • Public transit
  • Caregivers working in early childhood and adult day programs

Additional sectors are covered in Phase 1C, which includes people aged 65 to 74 and anyone else over the age of 16 with a high-risk condition. It covers essential workers in the following sectors:

  • Transportation and logistics
  • Water and wastewater
  • Housing construction
  • Food service
  • Finance, including bank tellers
  • Information technology
  • Communications
  • Energy
  • Legal services
  • Federal, state, county and local government, including elected officials, members of the judiciary and their staffs
  • Media
  • Public safety
  • Public health

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