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HHS wants more eligible for vaccine

Secretary: Shot supply exceeds demand

Operation Warp Speed is releasing its second-dose reserves of coronavirus vaccines and expanding its eligibility recommendations to include all those over 65 and those as young as 16 who have documented comorbidities, to speed up getting vaccines “into arms,” U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said.

Hospitals and other organizations dispensing shots also should stop worrying about absolute adherence to group priorities — a micromanaging approach that makes “perfect the enemy of the good,” said Azar, who plans to incentivize a shift to a more pragmatic outlook by giving states that do better more doses.

HHS is also opening up “more channels” for vaccine administration with a federal partnership involving 19 retail pharmacy companies to provide sites for shots and assistance for states to set up mass vaccination centers, Azar said.

While second doses are no longer being held in reserve, shipments for second doses will get priority, Azar said.

There is widespread agreement to continue following the prior guidelines that call for Pfizer vaccine boosters after 21 days and Moderna vaccine boosters after 28 days, he said.

Although the Biden administration had recently talked about releasing that second dose reserve, relying on the supply chain to ensure people got those second doses, Operation Warp Speed had always planned to make the shift, once it became clear that vaccine makers could keep up production.

The vaccine supply now exceeds demand for the population of group 1a on the priority list, and officials are confident in “the integrity of the distribution system,” so it’s time to move on, the secretary said.

Every vaccine dose sitting in a warehouse or on a shelf, rather than injected in a recipient, “could mean one more life lost” or individual hospitalized, he said.

Warp Speed has sent more than 25 million doses to 16,000 locations so far, according to its COO Gen. Gus Perna, who was part of the news conference.

Operation Warp Speed officials will cooperate with the Biden team on the transition between administrations, Azar said.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said her department doesn’t want to waste vaccines and wants to get doses into people as quickly as possible.

But it’s also important to prioritize, she said.

“There’s a natural tension” between the prioritizing and disseminating,” Dr. Levine said. “We want to find the right balance.”

Pennsylvania is tied for 28th among states in percentage of the population vaccinated, at 2.7%, or 347,000 people, according to a New York Times tracker. Thirty-eight percent of the vaccines it has received have been administered, according to the tracker.

West Virginia has the highest percentage of population vaccinated, 5.8%, while North Dakota has the highest percentage of doses used, 74%.

Arkansas has the lowest percentage of population vaccinated, at 1.4%, and the lowest percentage of doses used, at 15%, according to the tracker.

The numbers for people vaccinated aren’t totally reflective of reality, because of a lag in statistics for doses administered, due to 24-hour delays in reporting from hospitals and 72-hour delays in reporting from CVS and Walgreens, which are giving shots in nursing homes — plus the need to defrost and prepare doses for administration, which can take a day or more, Levine said.

Warp Speed’s vaccine delivery performance has been 99%-plus effective, but Warp Speed could make it easier on states if it communicated more details earlier on how many doses are going to which hospitals and when, so hospitals can better prepare, Levine said. Still, she’s pleased more doses will be coming.

UPMC is also pleased at the news, including the “lightening of the rules,” said Tami Minnier, its chief quality officer, in a separate news conference.

Given its many locations, its experience in administering vaccines and its success so far in administering COVID-19 vaccines, UPMC is ready to help with scaling up of the effort, she said.

“This is the D-Day of vaccinations,” said Donald Yealy, chairman of the department of emergency medicine, speaking of the national push to get “tens and hundreds of millions” of people immunized quickly.

Front line health care workers and nursing home workers and residents constitute group 1a, the focus so far, but the identity of those at risk of exposure is not always obvious, Minnier said.

“You can’t categorize people just by job title,” she said.

IT employees, for example, interact with clinicians and can be exposed, she said.

Beyond that, any worker in a health care organization ought to be considered high priority, because if they become infected from community exposure, their absence can damage the operations of their organizations, according to Yealy.

Even so, UPMC Altoona recently took action after someone went out of turn, according to spokeswoman Danielle Sampsell.

“A retired member of our medical staff requested and received a vaccine prior to our community vaccine phase,” she wrote in an email. “This isolated incident was a clear violation of our vaccine prioritization guidelines and is not a reflection of our efforts thus far. We are committed to vaccinating our frontline workers and regret this mistake.”

People seem to be more and more accepting of the need to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Dr. Cynthia Chuang, chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, who was in the news conference with Levine.

In the summer, polls showed that 50% predicted they’d be willing, she said. The numbers have gone up, as people see health care providers and their loved ones getting immunized, she said.

The two vaccines approved so far have a “remarkable” efficacy of 95%, which should help, she said.

There is a small percentage of people who are “absolutely opposed” to getting vaccinated, said Gov. Tom Wolf, who also was in the news conference.

That means there’s a large group “in the middle” “waiting to see how it turns out” — and who are persuadable, he said. Federal funding to enable a coordinated federal and state vaccine promotion program will help persuade them, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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