First COVID-19 vaccine vials arrive in NY

Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds up an empty vial contained in a shipment of Pfizer’s coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine during a briefing in the state Capitol in Albany on Thursday afternoon. Courtesy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled the state’s first vials of a COVID-19 vaccine Thursday after throwing support to top federal Democrats for taking a step toward passing a supplemental coronavirus relief package before the holiday recess.

Cuomo revealed a nearly 2-foot-high box during a COVID-19 briefing in the state Capitol from under the blue-curtained table in the Red Room, joking that the box contained a Christmas present, and that he would not be quick to deliver a gift to the Albany press corps.

The box contained vials of drugmaker Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.

“This is the weapon that wins the COVID war,” Cuomo said Thursday. “We have to get serious about this.”

A locating GPS tracking device, thermometer and dry ice are contained in each package, which houses vials with an inner lid, payload sleeve and outer carton.

Vials containing the coronavirus vaccine require ultra-refrigeration. Last month, medical personnel said dosages requires storage at about minus-112 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus-80 degrees Celsius.

“The package has to stay at the right temperature because if it doesn’t, the vaccine is destroyed,” Cuomo said.

The dry ice must be replaced as soon as a shipment is delivered, and must be replaced at least every five days. Vials sit in trays under the dry ice, with each containing five dosages.

Diluting liquid comes with each vial to create enough for five doses per bottle.

One tray holds up to 195 vials, or roughly 5,000 doses per box. Each box can only be opened two times in a 24-hour period for 60-90 seconds each to ensure the frozen vials are stored at the proper temperature.

“The storage and handling of the box itself is complicated,” the governor said. “You have to allow the vial to thaw at room temperature for about 30 minutes.”

Vials must sit for two hours after dilution, and then must be administered within six hours.

The first 170,000 doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine will arrive in the state by Dec. 15. The Manhattan-based company developed the immunization without federal aid.

Vaccines will be administered by injection and require two doses per person a few weeks apart. A supplemental shipment to boost the vaccination of the initial 170,000 patients is expected about three weeks later.

“The vaccine really isn’t effective until after the second dosage,” Cuomo said. “So it’s not easy, but it’s real and they’re being manufactured ... and we’re working very hard to be ready for the distribution to make sure it’s all done correctly.”

Cuomo has urged officials to develop aggressive outreach and public education efforts to equitably distribute the vaccine in Black, brown and low-income communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

More than half of surveyed Americans have said they would not take a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, because they remain skeptical of its safety. Health experts across the globe estimate about 75% to 85% of a population must receive the vaccine for it to be effective.

“Mathematically, that doesn’t work,” Cuomo said. “People are going to have to do their part. They’re going to have to accept this vaccine.”

Cuomo said he plans to publicly receive a COVID-19 vaccine, similar to how a nurse gave the governor a nasal swab coronavirus test during a briefing late this spring.

“I won’t ask New Yorkers to take a vaccine that I won’t take myself,” he said. “It is real and we need people to start to focus on it ... and New York wants to do it as quickly as we can.”

The first vaccine dosages will be prioritized for the state’s 210,000 nursing home staff and residents.

The vaccine is the light at the end of the pandemic’s figurative tunnel, Cuomo said, but is not expected to widely be available to the public until late spring or early summer 2021.

“But it’s not tomorrow,” he added. “It’s not a short tunnel, but we know the way through this. We just have to get there and we have to get there with as little loss of life as possible.”

Cuomo spoke in favor of leading U.S. Democrats House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, throwing support for a compromised supplemental federal coronavirus relief package. Democrats see the $908 billion measure as a down payment for additional funding they plan to legislate after President-elect Joe Biden’s administration takes office Jan. 20.

Cuomo spoke with Pelosi and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., about the bipartisan compromise.

“He explained his reasoning, which I think is sound,” Cuomo said Thursday. “I agree that as governor of New York, that we need help desperately and something is better than nothing. And as a first down payment, I urge them to get something done before they leave for Christmas.

“Families will not have a holiday if they don’t act and if there isn’t some aid.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate took initiative this week after months of an impasse by proposing a $908 billion COVID aid bill, which includes $160 billion for states and localities, $288 billion in loans for hard-hit businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program and $180 billion to boost unemployment insurance by $300 a week for 18 weeks, retroactive to Dec. 1. It does not include stimulus payments for families.

The package would invest $82 billion in education, $26 billion in agricultural and nutritional assistance and $10 billion in rural broadband, as well as $16 billion in vaccine development and distribution and contact tracing and $35 billion in a health care provider relief fund.

“They have been going back and forth,” the governor added, referencing months of negotiatons. “They would have to come back and do a real bill next year.”

The $160 billion for local governments is less than one-third of the $500 billion Democrats’ HEROES Act proposed for states and localities. The National Governors Association, which Cuomo chairs and represents all 50 U.S. governors, sent a letter to federal lawmakers requesting $500 billion in local aid at least four times this year.

“It’s not nearly what the governors asked for of this country, but again, something is better than nothing,” Cuomo said, “and we will support a first down payment bill. Sen. Manchin, who I have great respect for, by the way, says he believes this is the best they can get done.

“It would be a short-term bill until March.”

House Democrats passed a $3 trillion federal HEROES Act coronavirus relief package in May, and a modified $2.2 trillion version in October, which the Republican-controlled Senate has not passed.

State Coronavirus Task Force officials remain focused on balancing patient loads in hospitals and not overwhelming any facility or health care system. About 35,000 hospital beds are occupied of the state’s roughly 53,000 total, which would be reduced with the potential halting of elective surgeries.

Elective surgeries will cease in Erie County starting Friday, but have continued in the rest of the state’s 62 counties.

Nine of the state’s 10 regions have an increased number of COVID-19 patients over the last three days, with 48 additional patients in the Finger Lakes and 33 in Central New York, 18 more in the Capital Region, 14 in Western New York and an additional three in the North Country.

The Southern Tier was the only region to see a decreased virus patient load of eight fewer people.

Hospitals statewide will increase the available total to about 75,000 with preparations similar to emergency expansions medical personnel completed during the initial outbreak last spring. About 19,000 New Yorkers were hospitalized with the virus at its peak in April.

The statewide infection rate was 4.49% excluding oversampled microclusters, up from 4.2% Wednesday, and 4.84% including hot spots, also up from 4.63% the day before.

New York’s infection rate climbed to a seven-day average of 4.12% — the fourth-lowest of all U.S. states and territories behind Hawaii, Vermont and Maine.

Statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations increased 139 patients Thursday to 4,063 people.

Sixty-one New Yorkers died from the virus Wednesday, down from 69 Tuesday, but nearly double last week’s number of daily statewide fatalities.

Tribune News Service contributed to this report.

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