Saipan-- Christmas had a different meaning in the CNMI after the arrival of over 4,700 Pfizer vaccines in mid-December.
While the federal government is recommending a 70-percent population immunity, CNMI officials are hoping to achieve more than 90 percent.
With Covid-19 cases below 120 and two deaths, the CNMI has been doing well in terms of containing the virus that mostly come from inbound passengers and having zero community spread since June last year. Will this success translate to distributing and administering the vaccine?
“Remember, the vaccine comes in two shots -- some are 28 days apart, others are 21 days apart and that’s why we have started planning months in advance,” said Subroto Banerji, chief operations officer of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.
“Based on the proposal that came from Health community Services of the U.S .Department of Health, there are three phases of vaccination. And it’s up to us to model our program toward those built plan,"
The first phase involves people identified as healthcare workers, frontline responders and senior citizens.
The second phase will include frontline responders who make up the central and critical workforce -- whether they are on island or coming from the mainland. Based on the availability of the vaccine, that group will start being offered vaccination around mid- January to end of January.
The third phase, to roll around March, will move into the rest of the population.
CHCC chief nursing officer Renea Raho was the first to receive the vaccine in the CNMI. She has worked with patients infected with Covid19 at the hospital and Alternate Care Site at Kanoa Resort where they take arriving passengers for quarantine.
“It’s been a long process for us and we here we are now,” Banerji said.
Moderna and Astra Zeneca are awaiting approval from U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“In the CNMI we are getting ready to support vaccination for all of the community and it is our goal and that of Gov. Ralph Torres and the rest of the Covid-19 Task Force, we want to make sure that every resident of the CNMI is able to receive the vaccine,” Banerji said.
He added that the plan for distributing and administering the vaccine is very similar for all the states and territories. “Ours is a little bit different because we trying to advocate as much vaccine that we can store so that we can be ready to vaccinate at our schedule," Banerji said.
"As you all know for those of you who does amazon prime, we can’t get out things here overnight , we are not California, Maryland or Florida where you can get things overnight and so we have been strategically looking at the numbers that we can get vaccinated in different stages and advocating for the CNMI to receive as much of the vaccine upfront and not relying on a supply chain that we all grapple with for our personal good use as well as for critical health need.”
It seems like the CNMI vaccination plan is organized and currently playing well. Three weeks before Pfizer vaccines arrived, CNMI acquired 10 ultra-cold freezers from South Korea that will store hundreds Covid-19 vaccines.
“These freezers be supporting vaccine supplies for Saipan, Tinian and Rota, Banerji said. "We are hoping that by March, the vaccine will also include the children. Pfizer has started their trial in enrolling children ages 12 to 18 so we are hoping to get that data soon.”
He added that all of these efforts will be partnered by a vaccination campaign and support from private health providers.
“It’s really great to hear from the private companies and private health providers because this is really a team effort. Many of them have participated in the efforts that we have been doing for the last several months," Banerji said. "I think CNMI has really stood all public- private party partnership that really kept our Covid cases down at a very low rate… and making transmission extremely low.”
Currently, Covid-19 vaccinations are held at the Medical Care and Treatment site adjacent to CHCC. According to Banjerni, when more vaccines arrive, the government will ramp up vaccinations and move to other sites.
“We are looking to set up operations at the airport and we are starting a goal of 400 to 500 vaccinations a day. We want to make sure that we can get through the population as quickly as possible and be able to start that second shot time clock right away because the longer we take the first step, the longer it will take us to the second step,” Banerji said.
“We are going to need support of the private community and providers as we are going to be at the airport for hours and hours," he added.
Part of the plan is to conduct a survey and engage the community.
Based on the federal government's instruction, the CNMI must target 70 percent herd immunity. “We want to get into the villages and see the leaders of the community so that we are able to go beyond the 70 percent that federal government is hoping that we would get," Banerji said. "The 70 percent that we have been hearing about is to establish herd community that means a wider group of individuals are protected.”
“We would like to challenge CNMI because we feel that due to the island structure, our connections in our community that we should try to aim for greater than 90 percent vaccination and we can do it. It’s a heavy lift but we are ready to be there and we need the all the partnership to help us get there,” he added.