In a Wednesday press briefing, leading U.S. health officials said they’re “cautiously optimistic” that a COVID-19 vaccine will be available before the new year and reinforced the message that long-term care residents and staff are Phase 1 recipients if initial supplies are limited.

There are no guarantees about the vaccine trial outcomes, but the government is ready to begin phased distribution immediately if and when one is approved, said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, M.D., and Deputy Director for Infectious Diseases Jay Butler, M.D.

“One of the beauties of Operation Warp Speed is we’re not waiting until we have all of the studies completed and reviews done before we start the production process,” Butler said regarding the federal COVID-19 vaccine acceleration program. But if any one of the six vaccines currently being manufactured is found to be ineffective in the ongoing clinical trials, “that’s a vaccine that ultimately is not going to be administered to Americans,” he added.

The speakers also emphasized efforts at transparency around the potential vaccines. State distribution plans will be posted online, Food and Drug Administration advisory committee meetings will be webcast, and vaccine makers uncharacteristically are sharing developments during clinical trials, they said.

“The decision about whether to approve or authorize a vaccine at FDA will be made by FDA’s career scientists,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “The systems work. This is being played by the book.”

Meanwhile, federal agencies on Friday announced the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, which provides free end-to-end vaccination management via CVS or Walgreens. LTC operators can choose to opt in, in readiness for Phase 1 distribution to their facilities (or choose to use their existing pharmacy).

Comments from Redfield and Butler

  • At least one, possibly two vaccines may be available before the end of 2020, although likely in limited quantities.
  • Efforts to vaccinate may need to first focus on people at highest risk for severe disease as well as those critical to the COVID-19 response, including those who provide care to people in the healthcare system.
  • People most at risk include those in long-term care facilities, including nursing homes, and assisted living and independent living facilities.
  • All 64 U.S. public health jurisdictions have submitted initial vaccine distribution plans to the CDC.
  • Officials will provide feedback on the states’ plans over the next two weeks. An executive summary of each plan will be posted publicly online.
  • Two federal advisory committees are meeting, this week and next, to discuss COVID-19 vaccine development updates.

Proposed timeline of dose availability

According to HHS Secretary Azar, federal agencies continue to plan on a phased distribution of vaccines. At this time, he expects that there will be:

  • enough vaccine doses available by the end of the year to vaccinate the most vulnerable individuals,
  • enough doses by the end of January to vaccinate all seniors as well as first responders,
  • and enough doses by March or early April 2021 to vaccinate all Americans who wish to receive a vaccine.

For more news and context regarding Wednesday’s press briefing, go to these stories in McKnight’s Senior Living, and McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.