FDA chief encourages states to open pictures to extra folks

People wait in line on New Years Eve to get a COVID-19 vaccination at a location for the elderly in an unoccupied shop in Oviedo Mall. Governor Ron DeSantis ordered that Florida residents aged 65 and over be included in the first group to offer coronavirus vaccinations, contrary to CDC recommendations.

Paul Hennessy | LightRocket | Getty Images

The head of the Food and Drug Administration said Friday he was calling on states to start vaccinating lower priority groups against Covid-19 as U.S. officials try to speed up the pace after a slower-than-expected initial rollout.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn did not advise allowing all Americans to be vaccinated, telling reporters that states should give shots to groups that “make sense”, such as the elderly, people with pre-existing conditions, police, firefighters and other key workers.

“We heard in the press that some people said, ‘OK, I’m waiting for all of my healthcare workers to be vaccinated. We have a vaccine intake of around 35%.’ I think it makes sense to expand this to other groups, said Hahn on Friday morning at an event organized by the Alliance for Health Policy. “I would strongly encourage states to be more expansive about who they can give the vaccine to.”

Stressing that vaccine distribution still needs to be driven by “data and science”, Hahn added that ultimately, states know what is best for their communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided states with an outline recommending that priority be given to health workers and nursing homes first. However, states may distribute the vaccine at their discretion. In the past few days, however, U.S. health officials have raised concerns that national guidelines could slow the pace of vaccinations as states restrict access to shots to certain people.

As of Thursday, more than 21.4 million doses of vaccine had been distributed in the US, but just over 5.9 million doses had been given, according to the CDC. The number is a far cry from the federal government’s goal of vaccinating 20 million Americans by the end of 2020 and 50 million Americans by the end of this month.

Earlier this week, Minister of Health and Human Services Alex Azar advised states against micromanaging their assigned vaccine doses, saying it was better to get the recordings as soon as possible.

“For example, there is no reason states need to complete vaccination of all healthcare providers before opening vaccinations to older Americans or other high-risk populations,” Azar told reporters during a news conference Wednesday.

“When they use all of the vaccine that’s allocated, ordered, distributed, shipped, and got it in the arms of the healthcare providers, that’s all great,” he added. “But if for some reason their distribution is difficult and you have vaccines in freezers, you should definitely open them to people aged 70 and over.”

Global health experts said that distributing the vaccines to around 331 million Americans in just a few months could prove to be much more complicated and chaotic than originally thought. The logistics of receiving and delivering the vaccine are complex and require special training. For example, Pfizer’s vaccine requires a storage temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

At a news conference Thursday, state health officials said they would work to deliver the vaccine as quickly as possible but blamed insufficient funding and communication from the federal government for the slowdown.

They said they expected vaccination rates to increase once the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was approved. J & J’s vaccine only requires one shot, while Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines require two doses three to four weeks apart.

US officials admitted vaccine distribution was slower than hoped. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told STAT News Tuesday that she expects the vaccine rollout to accelerate “pretty massively” in the coming weeks.

“It is the beginning of a really complicated task, but one that we are ready for,” she told STAT.

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