WASHINGTON >> The Biden administration will begin shipping COVID-19 vaccines to U.S. pharmacies next week, ramping up vaccinations as new, potentially more serious strains of the virus emerge, the White House said today.
Coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said some 6,500 pharmacies across the country will receive a total of 1 million doses of the vaccine. The number of participating pharmacies is expected to increase as drug manufacturers increase production, which will allow more doses to be allocated.
Pharmacies have become a mainstay for influenza and shingles vaccines, and the industry is able to immunize tens of millions of people every month.
“This will provide more sites for people to get vaccinated in their communities,” Zients said, noting that due to supply constraints, initial availability will be limited. A priority will be to get the vaccine to minority communities who have suffered a disproportionate number of illnesses and deaths from the virus, he said.
The partnership with pharmacies was initially announced by the Trump administration last November. At that time, no vaccine against the coronavirus had been approved. The pharmacy program will be administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and includes major outlets such as CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Rite Aid and Costco, as well as supermarket pharmacies.
Zients also announced an increase in doses the government ships to states, territories and some major metropolitan areas. These will now total 10.5 million doses in all jurisdictions, against 10 million announced last week.
The 1 million doses shipped to pharmacies will be in addition to the 10.5 million doses allocated to states per week.
The White House has also taken steps to help states fund their efforts to respond to the pandemic. Zients said the federal government will make $ 3-5 billion available to states to retroactively cover certain costs eligible for reimbursement through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These can range from protective equipment for health workers, to deploying their national guards, to setting up community food programs. State expenses from last January can now be reimbursed.
But Zients said states needed much more financial aid from Washington, pointing out that Biden’s US bailout legislation called for $ 350 billion from states. The counter-offer by a group of Republican senators advanced over the weekend omits this campaign element.
When fully rolled out, the pharmaceutical partnership will bring together about 40,000 pharmacies across the country, Zients said, about six times as many locations as those involved in the initial launch. Some local jurisdictions have started offering the vaccination in pharmacies, but in most places this is not the case. Signs on the front doors of pharmacies indicate that no vaccine is yet available.
The two currently approved vaccines, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, require a special cold room. But chains like CVS and Walgreens, which are already participating in a nursing home resident vaccination program, have gained experience with special handling requirements.
Soon, the Food and Drug Administration will consider approving a vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, a single-dose regimen that requires only standard refrigeration.
The world as a whole is in a race against the virus to vaccinate as many people as possible. Disturbing mutations have been identified in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. The British variant spreads more easily and carries a higher likelihood of fatal disease. The South African variant may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines somewhat. All three mutations have been identified in the United States
The vaccine is free for Americans, thanks to legislation passed by Congress. To date, the government has distributed nearly 50 million doses, of which about 32 million have been administered, or over 60%. This is a marked improvement from a few weeks ago.
Even with the huge snowstorm that hit the northeast, Zients said “all vaccines were made available to states on schedule.” But he admitted that some vaccination centers had to close temporarily due to weather conditions.