The federal government is changing the way coronavirus vaccine doses are allocated, now based on how quickly states can administer shots and the size of their elderly populations, Minister of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said Tuesday.
States have two weeks to prepare for the change, Azar told reporters during a news conference. This should give states enough time to report their data to the government and ensure that all vaccinations are documented “promptly,” he said.
States are currently not reporting vaccinations in a timely manner, Azar said, adding that vaccine doses “sit in hospital freezers”.
The announcement comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues new guidelines that extend eligibility for coronavirus vaccines to anyone over 65, as well as those with comorbid conditions like diabetes and heart disease. States’ focus on vaccinating health care workers and nursing homes has created a bottleneck that is slowing the pace of vaccinations, a senior government official told CNBC.
“The states should not wait to complete the prioritization of phase 1a before moving on to broader categories of eligibility,” said Azar on Tuesday the new guidelines. “Think of it like getting on a plane. You may have a sequential order in which you board people. But you don’t wait for literally every person in a group to board before moving on to the next . ”
The government will also stop withholding millions of doses reserved for the second round of vaccinations with Pfizer and Moderna in two doses, the official said, adding it had released doses that had been held in reserve Sunday. President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team announced a similar plan on Friday.
Approximately 53 million Americans aged 65 and over and 110 million people aged 16 to 64 with comorbid conditions can now get the vaccine if each state applies guidelines according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The vaccine doses were previously assigned based on the number of adults in each state. But US officials complain that the pace of vaccinations has been too slow as the supply of vaccine doses exceeds demand.
As of Monday morning, more than 25.4 million doses had been distributed in the US, but just over 8.9 million shots had been administered according to CDC data. The number is a far cry from the federal government’s goal of vaccinating 20 million Americans by the end of 2020 and 50 million Americans by the end of this month.
State and local health officials have said they are strapped for cash. They blame insufficient funding and inconsistent communication from the federal government for the slow roll-out.
To speed up the pace of vaccinations, Dr. Stephen Hahn, Commissioner for the Azar and Food and Drug Administration, told states last week to begin vaccinating lower priority groups against Covid-19.
The CDC recommended immunizing health care workers and nursing homes first, but states are free to distribute the vaccine at their discretion. Hahn told reporters that states should give shots to groups that “make sense” such as the elderly, people with pre-existing conditions, police, fire departments and other key workers.
Azar admitted on Tuesday that the government’s guidelines are new, adding that vendors typically have a month to report their data instead of days. “This is a big workflow change for them. This data is going to kink the system for them,” he said.