HHS Sec Alex Azar headshot
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar

After criticism over the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to long-term care facilities and elsewhere, the federal government said it is taking “immediate action” to lay out ways for states to speed up vaccine administration.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a Wednesday call with members of the press announced the early launch of a federally arranged pharmacy partnership that eventually will cover more than 40,000 pharmacy locations from 19 pharmacy chains and associations across the country. The newly announced program would be in addition to the previously announced Pharmacy Partnership Program for Long-Term Care.

“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 and in certain occupations, and eventually to the general public,” Azar said during a Wednesday media briefing. 

Azar said the plan had been to ramp up this partnership over time but that the early launch will give states “as many options as possible for vaccine administration” in potentially more convenient and efficient settings. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended long-term care residents and staff members, as well as other healthcare personnel, as the first priority for COVID-19 vaccinations. Adults aged 75 or more years, as well as frontline essential workers, were included in Phase 1b, followed by individuals aged 65 to 74, people aged 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions, and other essential workers in Phase 1c.

“We strongly encourage governors to prioritize long-term care residents and staff, and ensure they have enough vaccine for this population before offering vaccines to other lower priority groups,” a statement from the American Health Care Association reads. “If their allocation allows them to do both in tandem, we understand their decision.”

Argentum President and CEO James Balda said although he agrees speed and efficiency are vital to vaccinating Americans, states should be taking cues from the CDC’s recommended prioritization plan.

“This would ensure that all seniors in congregate care settings are prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine,” Balda said. “From the beginning, it’s been clear that older adults are most at risk from the harmful effects of COVID-19. Protecting them and the staff who serve them in congregate settings should remain at the forefront of state vaccination plans.”

American Seniors Housing Association President David Schless said that he is encouraged by the efforts underway to distribute vaccines to assisted living community and nursing home residents, but he said it also is critical that independent living residents and staff members have access before broad distribution to the public.

“While not one dose should be wasted, all efforts should be made to get this vaccine to the most vulnerable people, seniors living in congregate settings, where the risks are the greatest,” Schless said. “It is even more urgent now to be strategic in the vaccine’s distribution as we face new threats presented by this new virus strain that is more contagious. If seniors are left unvaccinated, it can spread quickly through all congregate care settings, including independent living.”

Azar said state governors should not be “overly prescriptive about those prioritized groups.” His comments echo those made Tuesday by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who urged states not to let priority guidelines slow down vaccinations, as well as Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, who said the recommended priority populations should not lead to “unnecessary barriers.”

“Don’t leave vaccine in the fridge. Don’t leave vaccine in the vial,” Messonnier said, according to STAT.

“It’s more important to get people vaccinated than to perfectly march through each prioritized group,” Azar said Wednesday. “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.”

Operation Warp Speed Chief Operating Officer Gen. Gustave Perna said that the launch of the federal pharmacy partnership will “ensure a broader, deeper, wider distribution of vaccines to the American people.” He said the partnership will provide a “sophisticated approach” to scheduling vaccine appointments.

Perna said CVS Health and Walgreens have completed more than 9,000 vaccination clinics in skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities, with another 4,000 clinics scheduled. He called it a “positive momentum throughout the country.”

Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living, said Wednesday that he believes the Pharmacy Partnership Program for Long-Term Care is working.

“The majority of providers tell us that their clinics have been scheduled or have already occurred, and that, overall, the program is running smoothly,” Parkinson said. He added that the launch of the organization’s #GetVaccinated campaign is intended to encourage all long-term care residents, families and staff members to get vaccinated, as well as provide credible information to help inform their decision. 

“This is a monumental effort to vaccinate millions of our nation’s vulnerable seniors and their caregivers, and we are confident and grateful that everyone involved is working as hard and as fast as they can while still ensuring we get this right,” Parkinson said.

CVS said it expects to vaccinate assisted living residents and staff at almost 31,000 facilities. 

State vaccine assistance

Azar said the federal government has provided “considerable assistance” to states to date, including a CDC vaccination playbook, vaccination kits and $340 million for COVID-19 vaccination planning. “Only a fraction of funding has been drawn down by states,” he said, adding that jurisdictions can request administration assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the National Guard.

HHS also announced Wednesday that the CDC will provide more than $22 billion in funding to states, localities and territories to support testing and vaccination to 64 jurisdictions. 

More than $19 billion will be allocated to support testing, contact training, surveillance, containment and mitigation of COVID-19. More than $3 billion will be awarded to support vaccinations. Funding will be allocated through a population-based formula.