Federal changes made to quicken pace.
WASHINGTON— Facing a slower-than-hoped coronavirus vaccine rollout, the Trump administration abruptly shifted gears Tuesday to speed the delivery of shots to more people. The move came as cases and deaths surged to alarming highs.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced a series of major changes to increase supply of vaccines, extend eligibility to more seniors and provide more locations for people to get shots. Administration officials conveyed a notable sense of urgency.
One change will have some teeth to it. Azar said the government will base each state’s allocation of vaccines partly on how successful states have been in administering those already provided.
“If you are not using vaccines that you have the right to, then we should be rebalancing to states that are using that vaccine,” Azar said at news conference.
That won’t happen overnight, not until officials try to sort out whether lags in reporting could be the reason for what appears to be subpar performance.
Azar also said the government will stop holding back the required second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, practically doubling supply. Both those shots require two doses to achieve optimum protection.
Additionally, Washington is urging states to immediately start vaccinating other groups lower down the priority scale, including people age 65 and older and younger people with certain health problems.
The move to increase the supply of vaccines better aligns the outgoing administration with the new Biden-Harris team. On Friday, Presidentelect Joe Biden said he will rapidly release most available vaccine doses to protect more people.
“This next phase reflects the urgency of the situation,” said Azar.
“Every vaccine dose sitting in a warehouse rather than going into an arm could mean one more death that could have been avoided.”
Initially the government had been holding back second doses as a precaution against potential shortfalls in production. Now, officials say they are confident the needed supply will be there. And people needing a second dose will have priority.
“This is not a supply issue at this moment in time,”
Vice President Mike Pence told governors on a White House call. A recording was provided to The Associated Press.
Azar also gave states the green light to designate more places where people can get shots. Those locations can include tens of thousands of pharmacies, federally supported community health centers that serve low-income communities, and mass vaccination sites
already being set up in some states.
Although Azar said the shift in strategy was a natural evolution of the Trump administration’s efforts, as recently as Friday he had raised questions about whether Biden’s call to accelerate supplies was prudent.
On Tuesday, he also sought to deflect blame to the states for the slow uptake of vaccines. Azar said some states are being “overly prescriptive and trying to
micromanage every single dose of vaccine,” leading to bottlenecks.
Azar also criticized what he called “the hospitalization of vaccine distribution,” saying, “We have too much vaccine sitting in freezers in hospitals.”
State and local officials are sure to point out that it was the federal government that recommended putting health care workers at the front of the vaccination line.
The slow pace of the vaccine rollout has frustrated many Americans at a time when the coronavirus death toll has continued to rise. More than 376,000 people in the U.S. have died, according to the Johns Hopkins database.
Azar said the pace of vaccinations has picked up, on track to reach 1 million daily within a couple of weeks. But the American Hospital Association estimates 1.8 million vaccinations a day are needed, seven days a week, to achieve widespread immunity by the middle of this year. Biden has set a goal of 100 million shots administered in his first 100 days.
Local public health officials were surprised by Tuesday’s announcement and scrambling to figure out how to implement the changes, said Adriane Casalotti of NACCHO, the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
“All levels of the governmental public health system really need to be on the same page. Surprises don’t benefit anyone,” she said.