WASHINGTON — The December holidays and a lag in reporting are some of the reasons that the rollout of two COVID-19 vaccines appears not to be living up to expectations, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday.
First, the FDA didn’t approve the vaccines until shortly before Christmas, “so we don’t control that timeline,” Azar said during a press briefing on Operation Warp Speed. “The Pfizer vaccine was authorized and able to ship, I think it was Dec. 14th, and Moderna’s was authorized and available to ship on Dec. 21st, and then you have Christmas and New Year’s right there, so while we continued to ship, you do have the natural human behavioral element of the holiday season in terms of hospitals, pharmacies and other healthcare providers being able to line up individuals for vaccination, so that’s also a normal consequence.”
The administration has been heavily criticized for not meeting its own timetable of getting 20 million Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of 2020.
Reasons for the Slow Rollout
Azar gave several other potential reasons for the low vaccination numbers. “There is always going to be a lag between available doses, then the ordering by the providers, then the shipping, then the actual administration of the vaccine, and importantly, the reporting of those vaccinations,” he said.
In addition, “there are entities that are not reporting,” Azar said. “Here in D.C., one public health official has publicly stated that 40% of pharmacies [are] not reporting into the system. There is also a time lag of 72 hours in those that are reporting.” But there is now a “substantial increase” in the number of vaccinations, which is expected to continue, Azar said.
To speed up the rollout, the administration is doing an early launch of a pharmacy partnership, which will eventually cover 40,000 pharmacy locations in 19 chains and associations, he continued. “This partnership allows states to allocate vaccines directly to these partners, and these partners can then administer vaccines to particular groups — like those over a certain age or in certain occupations — and eventually to the general public. The plan had been to ramp up this partnership over time … but to help give states as many options as possible for vaccine administration, we’re launching the program this week and states can choose particular partners to send vaccines to now. These partners can provide rapid access to vaccines in settings that may be more convenient and efficient than partners they’ve used so far, like hospitals.”
Help for States
Although states have complained that they have not been given enough funds to distribute the vaccines and related supplies, Azar suggested otherwise. “We’ve already provided considerable assistance to the states and other public health jurisdictions we’re working with,” such as a federally created vaccination playbook and “the kits with needles, swabs, and personal protective equipment needed to administer the vaccines, and $340 million for COVID-19 vaccine planning,” he said. “Only a fraction of that $340 million in funding, I will note, has been drawn down by states.”
“In addition, jurisdictions can request specific assistance where necessary for administration, which could include FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] or National Guard personnel,” he continued. “On top of that, we have billions more in funding for vaccine administration in the relief bill the president signed last week. CDC will initially award $3 billion to more than 60 jurisdictions using a population-based formula as directed by Congress.”
Indeed, later on Wednesday, HHS announced it was providing $22 billion in new funding to states to support vaccination efforts as well as increased testing.
Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, noted that “nearly 20 million doses of vaccine were already delivered to nearly 13,000 locations throughout the United States … It’s going very well. Our goal is to maintain the steady drumbeat so states have the cadence of allocation planning.”
Alluding to the pharmacy partnership launch, “We’re aligning the capability to deliver to 19 pharmacy chains throughout the country,” Perna added. “Based on the plans from the states we can initiate that starting this week and going into the following weeks to assure broader, deeper, wide distribution of vaccines to the American people.”