In a pandemic marked by surprise, improvisation and shaky rollouts, decisions about priority access to COVID-19 vaccines were supposed to be different. Even moving at warp speed, the development and testing of vaccine candidates gave public health experts, medical ethicists and state health agencies months to ponder the order in which scarce doses should be parceled out.
Then all of their careful planning was tossed aside.
Amid growing criticism that so few shots were getting into American arms, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this week abruptly announced changes in the rules. Federal officials said they will stop holding back the second dose of vaccine for each person who gets a first shot. They expanded eligibility to all senior citizens ages 65 and up, as well as to younger adults with medical conditions that increase their risk of a serious case of COVID-19. And they told states that the more doses of vaccine they administer, the more new doses they’re likely to get.
Meanwhile, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday that the highly transmissible coronavirus strain that arrived from the United Kingdom just a few weeks ago could be driving a new surge of infections by March. But that surge could be suppressed, or even reversed, by an aggressive vaccination campaign that reached 1 million Americans a day.
That goal could be more attainable under a plan from President-elect Joe Biden, who endorsed the decision to open the vaccine floodgates. The Biden administration will enlist the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the National Guard to step up immunizations and make sure people receive all the recommended doses. Retail pharmacies would help jump-start the effort.
All this leaves state and local health departments scrambling to deliver vaccines as fast as they can. Which raises some questions.
Question: Does this mean more vaccine is available?
Answer: Not really.
With 38 million doses produced to date and 12 million already administered, roughly 26 million doses are up for grabs, with several million more coming off production lines in the coming week.
Most of those either have been shipped already or are spoken for by states. Production hasn’t increased. But freezers at the 14,000 locations to which those doses have been shipped will no longer be stocked with vials set aside for second doses.