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CDC Advisory Committee Chair On Vaccine Distribution


The vaccines are coming. Millions of doses are being shipped out across the country this week, bringing hope, also bringing logistical challenges and a few hiccups as state and local officials try to sort through distribution. Today, we're going to check in on how it is going in one state - Arkansas. Dr. Jose Romero is Arkansas secretary of health. He also chairs the committee that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, on who gets vaccines first. He is here with both his hats on.

Dr. Romero, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOSE ROMERO: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be back.

KELLY: Start with just giving us a sense of scale. How many vaccines have you been able to administer so far in Arkansas?

ROMERO: To date, we have administered 12,762 doses, and we have distribution now to 18 of our major hospitals, including the health department - now is 19. That was for the Pfizer vaccine. We now have vaccine being delivered to our nursing homes, and that's the Moderna vaccine.

KELLY: OK, so you've got both coming in. Have you gotten all the vaccines you were expecting? I'm asking 'cause as you'll know, some states are receiving fewer than they were told they were going to get.

ROMERO: Yeah, we haven't had that problem. We are getting an allotment that's appropriate for what we need at this point.

KELLY: I'm sure you would like more - be able to ramp this up as quickly as possible.

ROMERO: Yes, that would be great. But we deal with what we have.

KELLY: Have you had any road bumps so far?

ROMERO: I think the distribution has gone well. Yesterday, we had a little hiccup in that when it was being delivered to one of our pharmacies, there wasn't somebody there to receive it when FedEx, I think it was, went to deliver it. But the vaccine was not left at the doorstep, so no harm done. But we learned from that. We need to let people know when the vaccine is coming, and we're putting measures in place to not let that happen again.

KELLY: And what about challenges with keeping the vaccines as cold as they need to be? We've heard a lot about how they both have to be refrigerated, the Pfizer vaccine at exceptionally cold temperatures. Has that been problematic?

ROMERO: It has not for us. So our initial rollout of the vaccine was to centers that had the capability of ultracold storage. And the distribution of the vaccine to the pharmacies, which we are using to reach our smaller rural hospitals, also have that capacity. So knock on wood. At this point, we have not had a problem with that.

KELLY: Let me follow up on what you were just talking about in terms of getting out to smaller, more rural areas. What is the plan to make sure that places that do not have the health care infrastructure of a big city - that they get the vaccine, too?

ROMERO: Right. So our plan right now in this phase is to use pharmacies that will distribute the vaccine to regions of our state. And as we roll out with newer vaccines - vaccines that can be stored at room temperature or with regular freezers - we will start to rely more and more on our regular pharmacies to get that vaccine out. And then also, we will look at our local health units. In each county, we have one to two local health units, which are extensions of our central office. And so those we're going to rely on very heavily in the future to get vaccine out to the general public.

KELLY: I have to say it sounds like a smooth rollout in Arkansas, at least, particularly given this is a brand-new vaccine that has just been authorized for a disease that none of us had ever heard of at this time last year.

ROMERO: No, I think you're right. I'm surprised that we haven't hit any major roadblocks. Now, you know, two hours from now, I learn something new.

KELLY: Yeah, go knock on wood.

ROMERO: But really, it has gone very well. And, you know, let's see how we do over the next couple of weeks. We've only been at this for 10 days now and now, you know, a couple of days with two vaccines.

KELLY: I suppose the other question is just one of scale and scaling up. Right now, you've given a few thousand shots. You're going to need to do that, you know, many, many times over to get everybody in Arkansas vaccinated.

ROMERO: Yeah, that's right. This is just the beginning. So we need to see if we can keep this up, this pace, if all these hospitals and the personnel are going to accept it. When we have more information in a week or beginning of next week of what the uptake is, that will give me a better idea of how well this vaccine is being accepted.

KELLY: When are you getting the vaccine?

ROMERO: I am not in the first tier. I will take that vaccine when the time comes. But again, there are others that are more important for the care of patients - direct care of patients than myself. If I need to take this in order to boost confidence, I will certainly roll my sleeve up. I will be the first to accept this vaccine if it's important for me to do so for public confidence or because I am in a tier to take that. But I will not jump somebody else's place in line.

KELLY: Dr. Jose Romero - he is Arkansas secretary of health. He also chairs the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

Dr. Romero, good to speak with you. Thank you.

ROMERO: Good to speak with you. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.