The Trump administration is urging state governors to be more flexible over who is allowed to receive coronavirus vaccines, as doses continue to pile up in freezers across the country.
Alex Azar, the US health secretary, said on Wednesday that he wanted state leaders to allow wider access to the vaccines, amid signs that much of the country is struggling to get doses to people even after they have been distributed.
His comments are likely to fuel tensions between the federal government and individual states, with leaders on both sides accusing each other of bearing the blame for long delays in vaccinating people.
Federal officials have become frustrated in recent days with what they say is the overly prescriptive way in which some states are interpreting national guidelines, which recommend that healthcare workers and those in care homes should receive the vaccine first.
Mr Azar told reporters: “These are simply recommendations, they should never stand in the way of getting shots into arms instead of keeping them in the freezer, or ever, heaven forbid, wasting a dose of vaccine in a vial.”
He added: “If for some reason their distribution is struggling and they are having vaccines sit in freezers, then by all means you ought to be opening up to people 70 or over, 65 or over.”
The US has been vaccinating people since last month, when regulators approved vaccines made by both BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna. So far the federal government has distributed 17.3m doses of the two vaccines, but only 5.3m of those have so far been used, according to figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Part of the gap is a result of delays in data entry. Many healthcare providers say they simply have not had time to log all the vaccinations they have carried out so far.
Both state and federal officials say the problems are more serious than just data entry, even if they disagree on what the primary issues are and how to solve them.
Some experts blame the federal government for not providing states with adequate resources for carrying out vaccines, instead relying on already-stretched healthcare providers and pharmacy chains. The incoming administration under president-elect Joe Biden has promised to take more control over the distribution process.
Others say states are restricting the flow of vaccines by insisting that healthcare workers and nursing home residents and staff should be the only ones eligible for the first round of inoculations, as recommended by the CDC.
In New York, for example, Andrew Cuomo, the governor, has threatened to make it a criminal offence for healthcare providers to allow ineligible people to jump the line and receive early vaccinations. But he has also threatened to fine providers who do not use up their allocations by the end of this week — a stance which was attacked as “arrogance” by Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor.
Florida has taken a more liberal stance, opening up vaccine eligibility for anyone over 65. That decision has led to long queues for vaccines as hospitals struggle to cope with demand. But Mr Azar on Wednesday praised the policies adopted by Ron de Santis, Florida’s Republican governor.
Mr Azar said he was urging other governors to open up sites beyond hospitals for vaccinations “so it makes for an easier customer patient experience, getting those vaccines out there — as Governor de Santis has creditably done”.
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