Delaware may face hard months ahead even with vaccine in sight
At least two effective coronavirus vaccines have been developed and await emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but Delaware business leaders are warning that there is no certain date when the state’s economy will return to business as usual.
“I think it is safe to say at this point, and this is about as far as I’ll go, the first half of next year is probably going to look an awful lot like the last nine or 10 months of 2020,” Delaware State Chamber of Commerce President Mike Quaranta told the Delaware Business Times. “It’s going to be a while before we are going to be able to return back to a position of normal with no masks and the kind of freedoms that we had before.”
For nine months, Delaware businesses endured lockdowns and restrictions aimed to slow the spread of COVID-19, triggering a historic unemployment rate that still is fluctuating and revenue cuts. All hope of restoring the economy is pinned on a vaccine and two candidates have announced promising results. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer reports its vaccine is 95% effective, and was granted emergency authorization in Britain on Dec. 2. Biotech company Moderna – which received $1 billion in federal funding for development and dissemination- reports its vaccine is 90% effective.
Pfizer is set to have its Emergency Use Authorization request heard by the FDA on Dec.10. Moderna will have its request on Dec. 17. The White House Coronavirus Task Force said the first round of vaccine doses will arrive within 24 hours of the FDA’s approval.
Delaware should receive its first doses of the vaccine by mid-December, with the public targeted to see it by spring 2021, according to Delaware Department of Health officials. While the news has raised some spirits, it has also been tempered with logistics in transportation and distribution of the vaccine, according to University of Delaware epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Horney.
“What health officials say is vaccines don’t prevent infections, vaccinations do,” Horney said. “While we’ve developed these vaccines and the ability to manufacture them, we haven’t really focused on the infrastructure needed to get people vaccinated.”
Storage and distribution
Neither Pfizer or Moderna has the immediate production capacity to rapidly vaccinate the world’s population, and questions remain on which country – or state – should receive it first. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech could produce 50 million doses this year, and Moderna reports it expects 20 million doses in that same timeframe. With Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines both requiring two doses per person, initial supplies would be enough to immunize a combined 35 million people.
Delaware, with an estimated population of nearly 975,000 people, is expected to receive between 8,000 and 9,000 doses from Pfizer and 6,000 from Moderna in the upcoming weeks, and those are just the first dose, as the federal government is reserving the second dose. Those estimates may change once the FDA approves the vaccines, and the federal government is reserving the second doses, according to DPH spokeswoman Jen Brestel.
With limited vaccine dosage, Delaware is prioritizing health care and frontline workers who face a higher risk of contracting the virus, with layers in each roll-out. First will be high-risk workers in patient care settings and first responders; next critical infrastructure workers; followed by underlying or pre-existing conditions and those who are 65 and older.
Dr. Rick Hong, the medical director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, stressed that the Phase 1 vaccine sequence will overlap in these subgroups of population.
“There could be subgroups depending on the risk profile and we don’t want to focus on one group, because our infrastructure is composed of multiple disciplines. We want to make sure we’re protecting as many groups as possible,” Hong said during a Dec. 1 press conference “It’s a moving target right now because it all depends on what the vaccine supplies look like and logistics.”
The other challenge Delaware also must contend with creating a system to transport and store the vaccines until their use. Both Pfizer and Moderna used messenger RNA technology, which requires it to be kept cold to protect it. Pfizer’s needs to be kept in temperatures colder than winter in Antarctica, while Moderna’s can be stored in a standard freezer.
Hong said that vaccine distributors have the capacity to store the vaccine for up to 15 days, as long as the state can recycle the dry ice needed to keep it at that temperature. There is another five days of storage with refrigeration.
“We are working closely with the health care systems and we’re confident that they’re able to accept the initial vaccines and distribute it appropriately within their systems,” he said.
But still, Horney said it will be a while until Delaware has the doses it needs to return to pre-pandemic life.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we have vaccines that seem to be performing well, but we have to be patient. The vaccine is going to be another tool in our toolbox. It doesn’t mean we will have to stop social distancing and good hygiene — that’s all still going to happen in parallel with the vaccine,” she told DBT.
Predicting the vaccine’s effect on consumer confidence
Mike O’Halloran, the Delaware director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), said the vaccine may buoy spirits when it comes to shopping, but small businesses still have to weather the ongoing storm.
“Right now, it’s not just difficult, it’s damn near impossible for a small business to make the revenue they once were,” he said. “They’re the fabric of our lives and they produce 50% of our gross GDP, so the vaccine is great news for consumer confidence particularly as the governors and policymakers keep an eye on the [case numbers].”
One in five small business owners say their sales revenue is about half of what it was before the pandemic, according to an October NFIB survey. Roughly 75% of respondents said they do not expect economic conditions to improve until at least 2021.
Part of the difficulty in predicting a recovery depends on the industry, as in-person services or experience-driven markets have been hit hard. Delaware’s restaurant industry faces $900 million in losses during the pandemic, and the vaccine could mean renewed hope for restaurants, which are likely to see reduced outdoor dining as the weather grows colder, Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman told DBT.
“As winter approaches, those outside spaces are not really accessible for most people in the public. So accessing the vaccine and having people get vaccinated will certainly help the consumer feel more comfortable coming back inside of our restaurants,” Leishman said.
Restaurants employ one in 10 Delawareans, so vaccinating restaurant workers will be “essential to the health and well-being of our overall communities,” she added.
Bob Older, president of the Delaware Small Business Chamber, was more uncertain that the vaccine would result in a steady economic recovery. He said half the population might not take it due to a growing anti-vaccine attitude in the country and it will be months until the other half receives it.
“What people don’t understand is that this will prolong the hits for small businesses, and for some, the hits get harder and harder,” Older said. “Take gyms and travel agencies. Movie theaters might still be closed throughout this. If COVID were to end tomorrow, some businesses may get immediately up and running, but others, it will take months to recover.”
Consumer confidence will soar with the distribution of a vaccine, said Quaranta, of the state chamber, but he cautioned that it will be important for businesses and customers not to become complacent with maintaining social distancing, mask wearing and other protocols from this year.
“If we’re impatient and we move too quickly as a society without sufficient rollout of the vaccine, we’re going to continue to have some very sick people, and some people will unfortunately succumb to the virus,” he said. “Until there’s widespread vaccination, we’re just going to have to remain diligent.”
Calls for more small business funding
To tide over Delaware’s businesses, most stakeholders say there will need to be more federal funding programs and hopefully fewer restrictions in the future. The Paycheck Protection Program was a “godsend” to many small businesses in the state, but O’Halloran, of the NFIB, said it’s paramount that Congress passes another stimulus bill.
“It’s what keeps the bills paid and people on payroll for many of these businesses. Some of these businesses are facing more restrictions and fewer customers, and more than half of them say they will need more financial assistance to stay in business,” he said.
Leishman agreed that restaurants need more funding to keep their doors open.
“We are appreciative of the governor’s grant program, but it’s not enough,” she said. “We need more funding. The longer our industry waits for a vaccine, the longer it takes to open up at full capacity, the more money this industry is going to need.”
In November, Gov. John Carney ordered restaurants to reduce their capacities from 60% back down to 30%, a move that Leishman said was “a real kick in the gut” to restaurants that were hoping for increased business over the holiday season so they could recover some of the losses they incurred earlier in the year.
Communication about whether Delaware is open — and safe — for business for the months ahead would also go a long way for the business community. Older said that the uneven restrictions left many small businesses behind, while many big-box retail stores are allowed to operate with fewer restrictions.
“Small businesses right now are doing everything they can. This is above them, like a boss saying ‘no’ when all the other employees say ‘yes,’” he said. “Our death rate is nowhere near as high as it was in July, and there’s so much fear put in people right now.”
Easing vaccine uncertainty
Another battle that Delaware health officials will be preparing to fight is getting residents to take the vaccine in the first place. In the First State, 42% of adults have received age-appropriate vaccines, making it the 23rd highest rate in the nation, according to health care analysts at QuoteWizard. But in the last five years, Delaware saw a drop of 2.33% in adult vaccinations.
“Vaccine hesitancy is a growing problem globally, and we’re seeing the reemergence of diseases we thought were eradicated because of it,” Horney said, pointing out that New York almost lost its measles certification last year because of an outbreak.
“There’s still going to be questions about the rapid development of the coronavirus vaccine, and the technology may be new, but it’s at least a decade old at this point. We also have to keep in mind that a good portion of our population believes COVID is not here and our response is overblown,” she said.
To combat that risk, DPH will be launching a campaign sharing people’s stories about why they choose to get vaccinated to help humanize the decision instead of relying on data and science.
“I know it seems like this vaccine got turned around very quickly but there’s no corners being cut regarding safety. It’s just the bureaucracy and the red tape that we’re shorting. The pandemic ends once a large population gets vaccinated,” Hong said.
By Katie Tabeling and Marcus Dieterle
Marcus Dieterle is a contributing writer.