Feds tell states to give COVID-19 vaccine to anyone 65 and older in bid to speed rollout

Feds tell states to give COVID-19 vaccine to anyone 65 and older in bid to speed rollout
A provider with Augusta Health administers a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this week. (Source: Courtesy of Augusta Health)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Tuesday directed state officials to expand who is getting vaccinated for COVID-19, and announced that all available doses will be distributed to states instead of holding back a reserve of follow-up doses.

Under the policy changes outlined by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, states should begin vaccinating anyone 65 and older those under 65 who have underlying health conditions that put them at increased risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms.

States also are urged to expand the sites being used for vaccinations and will see their allocation of doses change. The number of vaccine doses sent to states each week will no longer be based on population, but rather on the pace of vaccine administration and the number of residents 65 and older.

“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,” Azar told reporters.

The shift in federal policy guidance comes amid frustrations over the slow rollout of vaccinations as case counts and deaths from COVID-19 hit new highs. Instead of the 20 million doses that Trump administration officials had estimated could be administered by the end of 2020, that tally was just over 3 million. Virginia has struggled to account for its lag in getting vaccines administered.

State officials also have expressed exasperation at changing figures on the number of vaccines they will receive each week.

A group of Democratic governors — including those from Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin — last week called on federal officials to accelerate the distribution of the available vaccines so that the second dose of the two-shot regimen isn’t held back. President-elect Joe Biden had pledged to make that change as soon as he takes office next week.

Azar said Tuesday that the decision to release all available doses was made due to increased confidence that pharmaceutical manufacturers will be able to produce enough doses to keep up with demand.

Noting the lack of response to the governors’ request for more doses, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wrote to Azar on Monday, seeking permission to buy more doses directly from Pfizer, one of two companies with COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use. HHS officials did not respond to questions about her letter.

It’s not clear whether states have been expressly prohibited from seeking to purchase vaccine doses, but the federal government has been the sole purchaser and distributor in the U.S., through a Trump administration task force dubbed Operation Warp Speed.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.