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Missouri health director hopeful on vaccine

By David A. Lieb and Jim Salter The Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — As Missouri reached another record for coronavirus hospitalizations, the state's health director on Tuesday told a legislative panel that he thinks getting back to normal in Missouri will involve an effective vaccine, whose first doses might be coming soon.

In this June 5, 2019, file photo, Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, speaks with reporters in St. Louis. Williams told a House committee on Tuesday that he expects a COVID-19 vaccine to be available for a limited number of people by mid-December.

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams told the House Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention that he expects Pfizer Inc.'s new COVID-19 vaccine to be ready for limited distribution by mid-December.

"I believe that the path to get back to normal is now lighted," Williams said, "and that path is this vaccine."

Mid-December might be optimistic.

Pfizer announced Monday that its vaccine may be 90% effective, based on early and incomplete test results. The Food and Drug Administration must still authorize its use, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is in charge of deciding who is first in line for the extremely limited supplies that will first come out.

This situation is constantly changing, but as of now it looks like the earliest vaccine makers will be able to ask for emergency authorization from the FDA is the third week of November, and then it will be some time – maybe several weeks – before the agency allows it. Vaccines will then be available only to a small group of people.

The CDC is in charge of deciding who is first in line for the extremely limited supplies that will available initially, and the states have to follow CDC's decision. And while vague outlines of prioritization are emerging, the final decision will be customized to each vaccine and announced only when each gets FDA clearance. 

If the Pfizer vaccine is approved, Williams said it would be distributed in Missouri from Pfizer's Chesterfield facility in suburban St. Louis to five regional centers. Williams warned it could be late April or early May before a vaccine is available to everyone who wants it.

The virus continues to surge in Missouri. The state health department on Tuesday cited 4,256 new cases, bringing the total to 216,697 since the onset of the pandemic. The state also cited 146 new deaths, though a spokeswoman said 138 of those deaths occurred from September through earlier this month but had not been previously reported. All told, the state has reported 3,299 COVID-19 deaths.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 hospitalizations reached yet another record high, with 2,055 across the state. Some hospitals in St. Louis have begun postponing elective procedures because rooms are filling up so quickly. St. Louis city and county are weighing new restrictions if things don't improve quickly.

Until the vaccine is widely available, Williams said, it is even more important for people to regularly wash their hands, remain socially distant from others and wear masks.

"Now is the time to be most careful," Williams said, noting some Missourians have become lax in their precautions. "If we can just persevere a little bit longer, I think things will get much better."

Williams was pressed by several lawmakers about why Republican Gov. Mike Parson's administration has not imposed a statewide mask mandate as COVID-19 cases spiked this fall. Parson has said he believes people prefer freedom over government mandates.

Democratic Rep. Kip Kendrick, of Columbia, said he believes "the state has failed" school boards by not requiring masks in all schools and instead leaving it up to local officials to decide.

Williams said the state has been working with the CDC on a potential study of COVID-19 mitigation measures in schools.