WASHINGTON — Stephen Nuckolls, who runs a North Carolina health care medical group called Coastal Carolina Health Care, has deep freezers capable of storing the two authorized COVID-19 vaccines and hundreds of staff ready to give it. But after two weeks of emailing the North Carolina health department, he couldn’t get a supply.
“My medical practice and many others have mostly completed our annual flu shot clinics and have staff and freezers (yes -70c) standing by to administer the shots,” he wrote in a Dec. 23 email to the Medical Group Management Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing independent practices. “But despite our repeated emails to the [North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services] we have no vaccine and there appears to be no plan to send any in the near future.”
Nuckolls’ practice even ranked its 30,000 patients on who had the greatest risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms in order to prioritize distribution according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. So far, just half of his own front-line health care workers have been able to get vaccinated.
While millions of vaccine doses sit on shelves at risk of spoilage at short-staffed, overwhelmed hospitals, smaller doctors’ offices and independent pharmacies have been sitting on the sidelines.
As of Tuesday, 9 million U.S. residents have been vaccinated, according to CDC data, a far cry from the 20 million people the administration promised to vaccinate by the end of 2020. Four weeks since celebratory first doses, federal officials have distributed 25 million doses to states.
The rollout contrasts sharply with flu vaccination, which saw 192 million doses sent to an estimated 150,000 hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, mobile clinics and schools within a few months.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration sought to respond to the behind-schedule rollout by announcing that officials were expanding vaccine distribution to other locations like pharmacies and smaller health care clinics and would support mass vaccination sites if states wanted to build them.
Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Operation Warp Speed, the federal COVID-19 vaccine and therapeutics initiative, was accelerating its partnership with pharmacies to speed uptake, which experts say could boost distribution.
When vaccinations started in December, federal officials said they would ship the first doses of the vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech to 636 vaccination sites across the country and the vaccine by Moderna to 3,285 U.S. locations. That was a steep decline from the tens of thousands of providers at 65,000 to 75,000 places that Trump administration officials had estimated as recently as October. The administration announced Tuesday that the number of administration sites has increased to 16,000 since officials began releasing more vaccines to pharmacies last week.
Azra Behlim, who oversees vaccine distribution for Vizient, a supply chain company that works with hospitals, said the solutions to the botched launch are “not all that glamorous” and involve simply sending the vaccines to more places or increasing staff at the limited places to which they were being shipped.