Federal government gives states green light to vaccinate anyone 65 and older, won’t hold back second doses

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced two major changes to the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan on Tuesday: States are now directed to vaccinate anyone 65 or older, as well as anyone below 65 with comorbidities, and required second doses of vaccine will now be released to states.

“We are calling on our governors to now vaccinate people aged 65 and over, and under age 65 with a (health condition) because we have got to expand the group,” he said.

The changes are meant to help address a disparity in distribution compared to actual vaccinations.

The Trump administration pledged to vaccinate 20 million Americans by the end of 2020. Over 25 million doses have been distributed, but only about 9 million people have received their first dose of vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker. 

CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said Tuesday there is more vaccine available than is being requested by states, allowing for more liberal guidelines of who can be vaccinated. 

According to Azar, manufacturing capabilities at Pfizer and Moderna are now in place, and officials would rather have lower priority individuals vaccinated along with high priority if it means that vaccine does not go wasted. “Use every channel, get the vaccine out there,” he said. 

President-elect Joe Biden has set a goal to vaccinate 100 million people during his first 100 days as president. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and member of Biden’s coronavirus advisory board, told “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday that he’d view it as an “aspirational goal.”

“We know right now that every day we don’t have vaccine in people’s arms, people are getting sick and dying,” he said. “And so, I think every effort must be made to do that, and the team is behind him in every way they can to help make it a reality.”

Osterholm said the main issues slowing down vaccinations are coordination with private companies and equitable distribution among health care workers who are simultaneously battling a surge in coronavirus patients. 

“Right now we have had a real challenge getting vaccine into long term care facilities because the two private pharmacy companies that had the contract with the Trump administration to do that have been very slow in getting it done,” he said. “Second of all, in the health care setting it’s been a challenge because many of these hospitals right now themselves are overrun with cases of COVID-19, and it’s very hard to coordinate both getting vaccine into these health care workers at the same time they’re working 16 hour shifts day after day.”

More than 22,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 last week — America’s deadliest week yet, for the second week in a row.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former director of the Food and Drug Administration, told “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the current strategy for administering vaccines is “not working” and encouraged public health officials to take up a new approach to inoculate Americans faster.

“We really need to get this vaccine out more quickly because this is really our only tool, our only backstop against the spread of these new variants. If we can get a lot of people vaccinated quickly, we might be able to get enough protective immunity into the population that this stops spreading at the rate that it is,” Gottlieb said. “So, we need to acknowledge that it’s not working. We need to hit the reset and adopt a new strategy in trying to get out to patients.”

Osterholm echoed Gottlieb’s criticism, but said that state and local health departments, which he called the “air traffic control towers” of distribution, will be newly engaged under the Biden administration. “I think you’re going to see that all changing in the days ahead, and all I can say is we have to change it,” he said.     

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