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Will States Be Ready To Distribute Coronavirus Vaccine?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer plans to ask the Food and Drug Administration to approve emergency use of its coronavirus vaccine. And a second vaccine from Moderna appears to be nearly 95% effective based on early trials. The federal government poured money into speeding up the search for a vaccine. Distribution is up to state and local governments, and many of them are already stretched thin. For one perspective, Dr. Nirav Shah joins us. He is director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Shah, thanks for being here.

NIRAV SHAH: Thank you so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: If a vaccine were available next week, would the state of Maine be ready to distribute it?

SHAH: We would be ready to distribute the vaccine, particularly to the highest priority groups on our list - health care providers, first responders and others that we know we need to keep healthy so that they themselves can continue to care for patients and help us vaccinate others. But make no mistake. Additional funds are needed so we can quickly and equitably vaccinate the rest of the population of Maine.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like the slow ramp-up of vaccine production is something that you're kind of depending on for vaccine distribution, not having to do it all at once.

SHAH: The phased rollout of vaccines, however many there may be, will be helpful to help us stage it. But right now we are planning not just for that first wave of vaccinations among health care workers but planning to vaccinate the entire state. In order to do that, again, with velocity and equity, we need to be able to hire vaccinators. We need to be able to hire logistics teams to transport the vaccine and store it, sometimes in ultra-cold environments. We need an IT system that can help us track who's received the vaccine and when to get their second dose. And we need to be able to instill confidence in the entire prospect. That all requires funding not just in Maine but in other states.

SHAPIRO: Does Maine have that kind of money? I mean, tax revenues in most states have plummeted during this recession.

SHAH: The public fisc (ph) in all states has taken a hit as a result. We think the federal government should be helping us in all states to make sure that every single state is fully equipped. We, at the state level, are ready to receive the baton, to have that baton passed to us, to begin the vaccination process. But without proper funding, it'll be like putting up tent poles without having the tent.

SHAPIRO: Are you hearing the same thing from your counterparts in other states?

SHAH: I am. My counterparts and I are in very close contact, not just up here in the Northeast but across the country. We convene several evenings per week to talk about where our planning is, to share best practices, and a recurring theme in those conversations is that we need to be fully equipped. Again, nothing short of the velocity and equity with which we can achieve vaccination - that's what's at stake.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned equity a few times. It sounds like if this money isn't forthcoming, the people who are going to suffer are going to be the people who have been most disadvantaged from the beginning.

SHAH: That's the most concerning piece of this. I mean, I want to be clear. We'll get the job done. That is what state public health departments do. But the more resources we have, that helps us determine how equitably we can distribute the vaccine. And equity comes in many forms. In a rural state like Maine, there is a geographic component to the equity. But there's also been, across the country and in my own state, unacceptable racial and ethnic disparities. Having adequate funding helps us make sure we don't go down that pathway and exacerbate those disparities.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel like you're being heard in Washington?

SHAH: We think so. We've had productive meetings as well as - not just myself but through our professional associations - making sure that the money that has been put into the vaccine development process - to make sure that we have made it known that there should also be parity not just with the vaccine development process but now with the vaccination development process. Making sure that that parity is achieved is really critical as a nation.

SHAPIRO: Could I just ask you to describe how you're feeling right now as the head of Maine's CDC, when you're looking at the hopefulness of a vaccine perhaps around the corner but also the dread of spiking coronavirus cases all over the country?

SHAH: It's a disparate way to go about it because it requires simultaneously looking at numbers every single day that are dispiriting but also trying to instill hope and confidence in my team, as well as among people all across Maine. Just today in the state of Maine, we recorded four deaths, which for us is a high number. But at the same time, we know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even though that tunnel is very long and has many twists and turns in it. Hope is on its way. Our job is to be ready to have that baton and start running the second that the vaccines are approved, whenever that may be.

SHAPIRO: That's Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thank you for talking with us.

SHAH: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.