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How a vaccine will be administered to hard-to-reach communities

A COVID-19 vaccine may be ready for distribution as soon as this month in the U.S. for some of those who are most in need of protection against the virus. But how will a rollout look in the coming months, including for some hard-to-reach populations? Dr. Carlos del Rio, a professor of global health at Emory University School of Medicine, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we turn now to a physician who has long been involved in the study of contagious diseases and the vaccines developed to fight them.

    Dr. Carlos del Rio is professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University School of Medicine.

    Dr. del Rio, thank you very much for joining us.

    What is your assessment of the Trump administration plan at this point to distribute the vaccine to Americans?

  • Carlos del Rio:

    Well, Judy, let me just first start by saying that the achievement of getting a vaccine in record time and getting vaccines that are incredibly effective is just something that we all need to be not only very happy, but we need to be very proud.

    The research infrastructure, many years of research before this virus started, basic science research and mRNA technology, has led to have a vaccine that is going to be really a key to ending this pandemic, the distribution is not going to be easy. The — getting the vaccine to many people is not going to be easy.

    But I will tell you — and I agree with the secretary — we are Americans. We put a man on the moon. We can get this done. It is going to require coordination. It is going to require people to collaborate. It is going to require people to work together. It's going to require funding.

    But I am convinced that we can get — as president-elect Biden has said, we can get 100 million doses in the next 100 — in the next — first 100 days of his administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And do you believe the administration can meet the deadline we heard from Secretary Azar, by — granted, it will be the next administration in charge.

    But do you think that this vaccine can be delivered to everyone who needs it by the end of June?

  • Carlos del Rio:

    I think so.

    And I hope that both administrations — again, this is not — this should not be Democrat or Republican. This should be both administrations. I would hope the Secretary Azar works very closely with Xavier Becerra, and they coordinate this, so there's a smooth transition, and it really doesn't matter who's in Washington, that we get Americans vaccinated.

    At the end of the day, we need to get vaccine into the arms of people, because vaccines don't save life. Vaccination saves lives.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. del Rio, what are going to be the hardest communities to reach? I mean, we're hearing about urban areas, inner-city areas. We're hearing about communities of color. We're hearing about rural parts of the country.

    Where is the greatest effort going to be required, do you think?

  • Carlos del Rio:

    The greatest effort, first of all, is going to be to have people trust the vaccine and to be willing to be vaccinated.

    And we live in a country that, unfortunately, because of years of racism and years of abuse by the health care and health infrastructure of African-Americans and Hispanics, the populations that need it the most may be the ones that are more reluctant to get the vaccine.

    They're not — they're not anti-vaxxers. They're not denials of the vaccine. They simply are distrustful of the system. So, I think the first thing we need to do is, we need to work with leaders in those communities, religious leaders, community leaders, to ensure that trust in the vaccine exists.

    The second thing is, we need to be sure that the vaccine gets to every corner, so it's not just going to be in the cities; it's going to be in rural communities; it's going to be in — everywhere that we need to get the vaccine, but, again, getting it to the most remote place in Alaska.

    But think about the postal system. Think about how the postal system get letters everywhere that is necessary. And I think — I'm convinced that distribution systems such as the ones that exist for Amazon, for Coca-Cola, and pharmacists and the military can get it done.

    But it's not going to be easy. But, at the end of the day, we have to get the vaccine to every single person that needs it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It sounds as if you are not concerned that the administration, for whatever set of reasons, decided not to commit to a second major shipment of the vaccine from Pfizer.

  • Carlos del Rio:

    Well, I'm not — I'm not sure. Again, I don't know what the details are.

    I would tell you, though, that the Pfizer vaccine is a vaccine that requires minus-80 refrigeration. It has some logistical complications, that it may be that you don't need the vaccine. You maybe wait for Moderna to get the vaccine EUA and then start using some of the other vaccine. You wait for AstraZeneca that does not require refrigeration.

    So, I think it really is — each one of these vaccines is a little different. And maybe — I think the cold chain requirements of the Pfizer vaccine make it a pretty challenging vaccine. You're not going to be able to get this vaccine to very rural communities. You're not going to be able to get the vaccine in many places in the inner city, simply because you're not going to have the cold chain required to distribute this vaccine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just very quickly, finally, Dr. del Rio, is it clear in your mind who should get the vaccine first, health care workers, then those who live in nursing home, long-term care settings?

    And then after that, do you — is it clear in your mind what the order should be?

  • Carlos del Rio:

    Yes, Judy, it's clear in my mind.

    The National Academy of Medicine, put out a report called "Equitable Distribution of Vaccines." And I would look at that report. CDC has looked at that report. And that's the report that tells you the tiers, how people should get the vaccine.

    And it starts with health care workers and those living in long-term facilities, and then it moves to teachers. And then it moves to first responders. And then it moves to students. And then it moves to different people in the general population, until, eventually, we get everybody vaccinated.

    If we do it right, I agree with Secretary Azar, by the summer, we could have pretty much everybody that needs it vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Carlos del Rio, epidemiologist, physician at the Emory University School of Medicine, thank you very much.

  • Carlos del Rio:

    Delighted to be with you, Judy.

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