Guam may soon be getting the two leading COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. to help stamp out the coronavirus on island.
Guam Memorial Hospital administrator Liliian Perez-Posadas told the GMH board of trustees during its last meeting that Guam may have the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine, or even both by either the end of December or by January next year.
The number of doses has also been doubled, from an initial 2,000 doses to now 4,000 doses.
“The governor had a conference call with the National Governors Association and the number of vaccines allotted for Guam is now 4,000. And that will be distributed by Public Health,” Perez-Posadas said.
Earlier, she said Guam could be getting the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as early as Nov. 23 but this didn’t push through.
The Pfizer vaccine, which has not yet been officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration, was the first in the United States to seek regulatory approval for a COVID-19 vaccine and it is currently applying for emergency US approval. It recently issued a news release touting its 90 percent efficacy.
One drawback of the Pfizer vaccine is that it can’t be stored in the refrigeration systems found at the typical doctor’s office. According to ABC News, the Pfizer vaccine requires special ultra-low-temperature freezers that can store medicine at approximately 94 degrees below zero and GMH currently doesn’t have that kind of special equipment.
The delivery system is also complex, requiring the use of a custom-built “cool box” that can store 1,000 to 5,000 vaccines for up to 10 days at minus 94 degrees.
Thus, if GMH gets its Pfizer vaccine allotment, Perez-Posadas said there is a very short window of time to take the vaccine.
Pfizer’s rival, Moderna, has also issued a news release touting its higher efficacy at 94.5 percent. Moreover, the Moderna vaccine doesn’t require the specialized ultra-low temperature freezers that Pfizer does.
This prompted Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero to announce that she will also try to get Moderna for Guam.
The Pfizer vaccine may be available sooner simply because it is a multinational pharmaceutical giant that has proven logistical and shipping prowess while Moderna is a relatively smaller company that has not yet brought a drug to market.
However, the governor said she is willing to wait if the Moderna drug proves to be more effective and more practical because of its temperature storage advantage.
“I was talking with the National Governors Association and the CDC. I said ‘ok, Guam earlier chose Pfizer. But what if I want Moderna now?’ And they said all I have to do is write them a letter that says we’re gonna wait for Moderna. If we wait for Moderna, it’s about maybe a two or three week delay. But you know, I’m thinking if it’s gonna be more effective, then let’s just wait two or three weeks. That was my thinking. But I have to meet with the various public health people, and CDC people. I do want you to know that I want the best for our people,” the governor said during her recent address at the Rotary Club of Guam.
But according to ABC News, there isn’t really much difference between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines aside from the different refrigeration temperature requirements.
Both companies use a brand-new vaccine technology called mRNA that uses pieces of genetic material to coax the body into developing defenses against future infection.
In any case, GMH has already been meeting with the Department of Public Health and Social Services to discuss procedures for the arrival and distribution of the vaccine/s, including the use of special equipment if needed.
GovGuam has also already submitted its COVID-19 vaccination plan to the federal government to provide an operational plan that will support the island’s efforts to implement a vaccination program to reduce COVID-19-related illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths and to help restore societal functioning.
The plan provides operational and logistical guidance to the Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services (DPHSS) Immunization Program for planning and coordinating a COVID-19 vaccination effort “to effectively request, secure, receive, store, stage, distribute, dispense, and recover vaccines.” It also describes the concept of operations for this effort and identifies anticipated roles and responsibilities for organizations.”
Currently, DPHSS possesses two pharmaceutical-grade refrigerators and one freezer which meet the following vaccine storage requirements: Frozen -13° F and +5° F and Refrigerate 36° F – 46° F. These units currently house routine childhood, adult, and seasonal Influenza vaccines. To ensure DPHSS does not compromise storage and handling of these routine vaccines and to increase vaccine storage capacity, Public Health plans to procure additional pharmaceutical/medical-grade cold chain units.
Moderna’s vaccine can be kept in normal freezer temperatures, like the typical home freezers, while Pfizer’s vaccine must be kept in a specialized ultra-cold freezer at -94 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once thawed, the Moderna vaccine can be kept in a normal refrigerator for a month, while Pfizer’s can only be kept in a typical fridge for five days, which is why Perez-Posadas says there’s only a short window of time to take the Pfizer vaccine.
According to Perez-Posadas, the vaccines will be distributed first to healthcare and frontline workers in GMH, Public Health, and Guam Regional Medical City as well as the major clinics on island.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who visited the island earlier this month, had also assured that Guam is on the list of jurisdictions that will be getting the COVID-19 vaccine. And he also said this can happen by the end of the year or the first quarter of next year.
According to Adams, Guam’s 165,000 population is actually an advantage because our relatively small population would make it easier to get herd immunity.
“We can get herd immunity in Guam by February or March. We really could if we get a vaccine over the finish line, we get those doses ramped up, and we get enough people on the island to actually take that vaccine. You can truly get back to a sense of normal a lot quicker than anywhere else simply because you’re a small island with smaller numbers of people and that allows you to more quickly get to herd immunity,” Adams said.