The Trump administration is accelerating the launch of a program to offer coronavirus vaccines in retail pharmacies in an effort to speed up the slow rollout of immunizations, officials said Wednesday.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters the original plan was to ramp up the program over time.
But the administration has come under fire recently over the slow and sloppy rollout of vaccines under Operation Warp Speed. Officials had set a goal of vaccinating 20 million people by the end of December, but fell far short.
As of Wednesday, about 5.3 million people have received the first dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“This partnership allows states to allocate vaccines directly to these partners, and these partners can then administer vaccines to particular groups like those over a certain age or in certain occupations, and eventually to the general public,” Azar said.
The program was announced earlier this fall, but no timetable was given for when it might start. According to Azar, it will eventually cover more than 40,000 pharmacy locations from 19 chains and associations across the country.
The idea is that it will be more convenient and efficient for someone to get a shot at the local pharmacy, rather than a hospital.
Azar said tens of thousands of pharmacies have already enrolled in the program, though only a few thousand will start vaccinating people initially because of supply constraints.
Federal officials in recent days have acknowledged the frustration with the slow rollout of vaccinations, and are encouraging states to take steps to speed up the process.
Azar on Wednesday urged states not to get bogged down in the silos of priority groups, and said it’s better to get shots into arms quickly, even if every single health worker hasn’t been vaccinated yet.
“Right now, there is no reason that states need to complete, say vaccinating all health care providers, before opening up vaccinations to older Americans or other, especially vulnerable populations,” Azar said.
“It would be much better to move quickly and end up vaccinating some lower priority people than to let vaccines sit around while states try to micromanage this process. Faster administration could save lives right now, which means we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Azar said.
In the absence of a federal plan for vaccination, states have made their own policies, sometimes changing them on the fly. The CDC provided states with an outline that recommends prioritizing health workers and nursing homes first, but states have the ability to distribute the vaccine as they see fit.
Azar urged flexibility around the priority phases, “rather than proposing heavy handed penalties for vaccine administration is the best way to get more shots in arms faster.”
His reference to penalties was a thinly-veiled shot at New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoGovernors respond to violence at Capitol Trump administration accelerating launch of COVID-19 vaccinations in pharmacies Cuomo’s dangerous courthouse law is based on fiction MORE (D), who has threatened to fine and revoke the licenses of providers who vaccinate people outside of the current priority groups.