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W.Va. rehearses for vaccine rollout

TRIAL RUN — A drill was held on Friday by the West Virginia Joint Interagency Task Force for Vaccine in anticipation of the first shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer. (Contributed photo)

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Joint Interagency Task Force for Vaccines held a Rehearsal of Concepts drill Friday to finalize operational plans for and to simulate COVID-19 vaccine shipment receipt, handling, and distribution processes to Phase 1 recipients.

The drill was held at the National Guard Joint Forces Headquarters in Charleston.

“The goal of the ROC drill was to validate the procedures for the vaccine receipt at our five distribution hubs, as well as to rehearse proper documentation, tracking and transportation of the vaccines to provider facilities,” Matthew Blackwood, deputy director of research and planning with the Department of Emergency Management, who moderated the drill, said.

“Attendees from the various agencies and private-sector partners will get to see first-hand how the JIATF has designed and intends to implement our Phase 1 vaccine distribution plan according to the protocols and guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national vaccine distribution process.”

On Thursday, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee overwhelmingly voted to recommend the Federal Drug Administration authorize emergency use status to a COVID-19 vaccine from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

Nationwide shipments of the Pfizer vaccine began Sunday after the FDA gave final authorization Friday. With those shipments come a host of logistical, administrative, and operational mission requirements that must be met in order to facilitate a smooth roll out of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Initial distribution of the vaccine will be facilitated through five distribution hubs located throughout West Virginia. Teams of soldiers and airmen from the National Guard with specialized training will be placed at each of the distribution centers to handle receipt of the vaccine from shippers, inventory and properly store the vaccines in ultra-cold storage containers, then break down the vaccine supplies into smaller shipments that will be transported to end-use administration facilities and sites.

The Pfizer vaccine requires special handling from receipt at the hubs to eventual administration into a patient’s arm. From ultra-cold storage at the distribution hubs, to securely packaging each of the smaller shipments of vials in dry ice for transportation to administration sites, the process is highly regulated in order to ensure the vaccines are safe and effective. The purpose of the ROC drill is to better explain and define these requirements and allow all the members of the JIATF and partner organizations to have increased confidence in the process.

“Logistically, handling a massive vaccination process like this is a really, really heavy lift,” said Jim Kranz, vice president of data and quality services for the West Virginia Hospital Association. “We have 62,000 healthcare workers and support personnel in the hospital system alone throughout the state. These are the folks who have been and are on the front lines of this pandemic response. Without this level of coordination from the JIATF and holding these types of exercises and drills, quick and efficient vaccinations for our critical medical employees and those in the most vulnerable among us would be impossible.”

Marty Wright, CEO of the West Virginia Healthcare Association agrees and has been impressed with the process.

“I have been so very impressed,” he said. “The entire vaccination process is an infinitely detailed and infinitely complex puzzle that requires everyone collectively working together and problem-solving. While this is new for everybody, the messaging and information sharing has been tremendous so that we will all be ready to execute day one. This drill is just one more example of that months-long collaborative effort and careful planning from everyone in the JIATF and beyond.”

Each participant had the opportunity to analyze the overall process, identify potential pitfalls within their own area of expertise, recommend fine-tuning of handling procedures, and to ask and have answered questions regarding the State of West Virginia’s Phase 1 vaccine distribution plan.

“Within the next week, we hope to receive our first shipments of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine and our plans will need to be fully operational,” said Lt. Col. Walter “Wally” Hatfield, director of operations for the National Guard. “It is imperative for us to complete our planning and to fully rehearse now so we can get the vaccine out to our Phase 1 recipients as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Friday’s drill helped achieve that mission goal, he said.

Vaccines during Phase 1 of the distribution plan will target hospital personnel, staff and residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, select first responders and governmental agency personnel responsible for continuity of government operations.

The task force includes representatives from the Department of Health and Human Resources, the National Guard, the Department of Emergency Management, the state Higher Education Policy Commission, the West Virginia Hospital Association, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Education the West Virginia Health Care Association and representatives from health departments and additional subject matter experts. It was established by Gov. Jim Justice.

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