HHS secretary recommends states open Covid vaccinations to older Americans, vulnerable groups

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Wednesday urged states against “micromanaging” their allotted coronavirus vaccine doses, saying it’s better to get the shots out as quickly as possible even if they haven’t been able to vaccinate all of their health-care workers.

“There is no reason that states need to complete, say vaccinating all health-care providers, before opening vaccinations to older Americans or other especially vulnerable populations,” Azar told reporters during a news briefing.

“If they are using all the vaccine that is allocated, ordered, distributed, shipped and they are getting it into health-care providers arms, every bit of it, that’s great,” he added. “But if for some reason their distribution is struggling and they are having vaccine sit in freezers, then by all means you ought to be opening it up to people 70 and older.”

U.S. officials are trying to pick up the pace of vaccinations after a slower-than-expected initial rollout. The coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. is continuing to accelerate, with the nation recording at least 219,200 new Covid-19 cases and at least 2,670 virus-related deaths each day, based on a seven-day average calculated by CNBC using Johns Hopkins University data.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided states with an outline that recommends prioritizing health-care workers and nursing homes first, but states can distribute the vaccine as they see fit.

Azar said Wednesday that states providing some “flexibility” around who gets the first doses “is the best way to get more shots in arms” faster. “Faster administration could save lives right now, which means we cannot let perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said. “Hope is here in the form of vaccines.”

More than 4.8 million people in the U.S. have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine as of Tuesday at 9 a.m. ET, according to the CDC. The number is a far cry from the federal government’s goal to inoculate 20 million Americans by the end of 2020 and 50 million Americans by the end of this month.

U.S. officials acknowledged vaccine distribution has been slower than they had hoped. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told STAT News on Tuesday that she expects the vaccine rollout to speed up “pretty massively” in the coming weeks.

“It’s the early stages of a really complicated task, but a task that we’re up for,” she told STAT.

Global health experts had said distributing the vaccines to some 331 million Americans in a matter of months could prove to be much more complicated and chaotic than originally thought. Besides manufacturing enough doses, states and territories also need enough needles, syringes and bottles to complete the vaccinations.

The logistics of getting the vaccine and administering it are complex, requiring special training. Pfizer’s vaccine, for example, requires a storage temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines cannot be refrozen and need to be administered at room temperature and within hours or risk going bad.

Read More: The Covid vaccine’s long journey: How doses get from the manufacturing plant to your arm

Azar also said the holidays likely played a factor in the slow rollout of the vaccines, saying health-care providers knew lining up millions of people for vaccinations through December would be difficult.

Nearly 20 million doses of vaccine have been delivered to more than 13,000 locations across the country, Army Gen. Gustave Perna, who oversees logistics for President Donald Trump’s vaccine program Operation Warp Speed, said during the same briefing.

Vaccine distribution is going “very well,” he said, adding officials are still working to improve the process. “Our goal is to maintain the steady drumbeat so that states have a cadence of allocation planning and then the appropriate distribution to the right places as designated.”

“We’re always reevaluating the numbers, making sure distribution is to the right places [and] making sure the execution is happening so that other decisions can be made about allocations,” he added.

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