US releasing more COVID-19 vaccine doses as officials urge states to widen availability
Officials announced Tuesday that the United States will make available all doses of COVID-19 vaccine that were being held in reserve and said states should begin vaccinating people not included among the initial groups for prioritization.
The announcement — which could open vaccination to millions more people, including anyone aged 65 years or older — came as criticism mounted that the country’s vaccine rollout has been slow, and as supply has thus far outstripped the rate of immunizations.
“It’s time to move on to the next phase of the vaccination plan. Every vaccine dose that is sitting in a warehouse rather than going into an arm could mean one more life lost or one more hospital bed occupied,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar II said during a press briefing.
Azar explained that stockpiled doses — which were being held to ensure that everyone who received a first dose of one of the two authorized vaccines also received a second dose — will initially be released to cover second doses, and will then be available as first doses.
He said the revised plan should not mean that second doses of the vaccines, which are given either 21 or 28 days apart, are delayed and that the government is “100% committed to making sure” that everyone who receives one dose also receives a second.
Allocation of the doses will be based on the pace of administration as reported by individual states and on their population of priority groups, Azar said, adding that states would have 2 weeks to organize for the new plan — a timeline that overlaps with the incoming administration, when HHS and CDC will be led by different people.
The plan is similar to a proposal that was set to be announced this week by President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was also going to call for a release of nearly all available vaccine doses, CNN reported. Biden has set a goal of getting 100 million people vaccinated in his first 100 days in office.
Azar anticipated that the U.S. will be able to vaccinate 1 million people per day in about a week or 10 days. The initial rollout has been much slower. As of Jan. 11, almost 25.5 million doses of vaccine had been distributed but fewer than 9 million people had received a vaccine dose, according to the CDC. Meanwhile, tracking by Johns Hopkins University shows that more than 22.6 million people in the U.S. have been infected and more than 377,000 have died from COVID-19.
Federal guidance set by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices last month recommended that the initial phase of vaccinations include health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, and the next phase include patients aged 75 years or older and frontline essential workers, including first responders.
But CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, said Tuesday the guidance was not meant to imply that each phase has to be finished before the next one begins.
“While the prioritization groups were well thought out and evidence-based, they are beginning to become an obstacle to getting vaccine into people’s arms,” Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Healio. “We do not want prioritization groups to be dogmatically followed with no flexibility and prompting doses to be thrown in the trash or kept in the freezer. The overarching goal of getting vaccine into people has to be the priority.”
According to Azar, the new guidance instructs that states should open vaccination to all of their most vulnerable people, including anyone aged 65 years or older and anyone aged younger than 65 years with documentation of a comorbidity. Some states, including New York, have already announced that they will make vaccines available to people aged 65 years or older.
Azar said states also should open up more sites to administer vaccinations, including “mass vaccination” sites. California has begun doing this, opening sites like Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles for vaccinations.
Army Gen. Gustave F. Perna, who leads Operation Warp Speed, the federal plan to speed up COVID-19 vaccine research, said vaccine distribution to pharmacies and other locations will increase and that vaccines were ready to be sent “wherever states want them.”
Moncef Slaoui, PhD, chief advisor for Operation Warp Speed, provided updates on some of the other COVID-19 vaccines in development. He said a vaccine being developed by Janssen Pharmaceuticals — which is given in just one dose — could be submitted to the FDA for emergency use authorization by the end of the month and available for distribution by mid-February. Vaccines being developed by AstraZeneca and Novavax could be available in March or April, he said.