The US federal government will release more Covid-19 doses that had been held in reserve and intends to cut the allotment of jabs to states that have not been administering them fast enough, as it tries to overcome a sluggish start to the distribution.
Alex Azar, health and human services secretary, accused some states of being “heavy handed” and micromanaging distribution, and urged them to open up vaccination to everyone over-65 and with underlying conditions that make them vulnerable to Covid-19, as is recommended under new guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So far, more than 25m doses have been distributed nationally but only 9m have been given, according to data from the CDC. The new stage of distribution will see shots given at mass vaccination sites and in retail pharmacies.
Mr Azar said it was “common sense” to give more vaccine to states that are using it. The allocation system would start in two weeks to give states time to prepare, he added. Allotments would also partly be based on the over-65 population of each state.
“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,” Mr Azar said in a press briefing.
The move comes as hospitalisations due to Covid-19 hover at daily record highs, with a particularly intense crisis in southern California. Nearly 370,000 people have died in the US from Covid-19, according to data from The Covid Tracking Project.
The CDC guidance for prioritising vaccinations follows a similar approach to Florida, where all over-65s are permitted to get vaccinated on a “first come, first served” basis. The policy has led to some seniors encountering lengthy waits to get vaccinated.
In accordance with the CDC guidance, New York will now allow people over the age of 65, alongside younger people who are immunocompromised, to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.
The decision would mean that at least 7m New Yorkers were eligible for vaccinations, Andrew Cuomo, governor, said on Tuesday. As of Monday, 579,532 people in New York had received their first Covid-19 vaccine doses, according to the CDC.
The US government is also releasing more doses that had been kept in reserve to ensure people get their second shot, after president-elect Joe Biden’s team promised to release the supplies of shots once he took office.
But unlike the UK, the US plans to supply enough doses to keep to the original vaccination schedules. Mr Azar warned leaving a longer gap between doses would be “reckless”.
Operation Warp Speed — the task force set up to accelerate development and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines — is confident it will have enough supplies from manufacturers.
It said it had had extensive co-operation with Moderna, and now has greater visibility and confidence in the production capabilities of Pfizer, which is developing its vaccine with German partner BioNTech.
Mr Azar also urged vulnerable people who test positive for Covid-19 to lobby their doctors for antibody treatments, echoing concerns raised by Regeneron, a biotech that develops an antibody cocktail, on Monday.
“We have products sitting on the shelves that can help keep people out of the hospital,” he said. “That is just as unacceptable as vaccines sitting on shelves.”