WASHINGTON, DC—With new expanded guidelines from federal health officials on who should be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination now, demand is expected to dramatically increase—and even more pharmacies will have to scramble to respond.

In a press conference, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, urged states to begin vaccinating all Americans over age 65 years and those ages 16 to 64 years who have a documented comorbidity that makes them more vulnerable to a severe COVID-19 case.

Public health officials insist that the current vaccine supply is sufficient to meet demand for the next phase of immunization as recommended by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

“We are ready for a transition that we outlined last September in the playbook we sent to states,” Azar told reporters. Army General Gustave F. Perna, chief operations officer for Operation Warp Speed, backed up the claim that confidence in the distribution system had led to the decision to urge wider access.

Azar, who earlier in the month discussed the accelerated launch of a federal partnership with 19 pharmacy chains that will let states allocate vaccines directly to some 40,000 pharmacy sites, now said the goal is to expand that 70,000 locations.

In addition, about 13,000 federally qualified community health centers will be receiving doses.

One way that supply will increase is that states are being urged not to keep doses in reserve to guarantee that people can receive a second dose on a timely basis. 

“We don’t need to hold back reserve doses,” Azar said, noting that if there were any “glitches in production” the federal government would move to fulfill obligations for second doses first and delay initial doses.

One controversial announcement from Azar is that, as of February, states that don't quickly administer vaccines will receive fewer doses in the future. It is not clear whether that policy will continue under the incoming Biden administration.

“We have too much vaccine sitting in freezers at hospitals with hospitals not using it,” said Azar. "I would rather have people working to get appointments to get vaccinated than having vaccine going to waste sitting in freezers.”

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