By Jared S. Hopkins and Peter Loftus 

Changes by the federal government to speed up Covid-19 vaccinations will increase doses available but might not help strapped health departments and hospitals give more shots more quickly, public health and hospital officials said.

U.S. health officials said Tuesday that states should expand vaccine eligibility to people 65 years and older as well as those with pre-existing health conditions, a large group that most states didn't expect to inoculate for weeks.

The U.S. will also stop holding back second doses, reversing the strategy since the rollout began last month.

More doses could be helpful in bolstering supplies that have been limited so far, public-health experts and hospital officials said, but the changes might not achieve the goal of accelerating the pace of vaccinations.

Part of the concern, the health and hospital officials said, is whether hospitals and local health departments already strained by Covid-19 surges and the vaccine rollout can handle vaccinating a larger group of people earlier than expected.

"It may speed the pace up temporarily, but it isn't adding that much vaccine to the pool of supply," said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. "The more we can do this in a systematic, organized and logical way, the better off in the long run of ending this pandemic."

More than 110 million people ages 16 years to 64 have high-risk medical conditions, and about 53 million people are ages 65 years and older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Federal health officials, announcing the new vaccine policy, said it would help get shots more quickly to people at higher risk of severe Covid-19, including the elderly and people with medical conditions.

"We need doses going to where they'll be administered quickly and where they'll protect the most vulnerable," Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday in announcing the changes.

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to discuss his plans for fighting the virus and improving the vaccination rollout.

So far about 10.3 million doses manufactured by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE and by Moderna Inc. have been administered out of 29.4 million distributed, the most recent federal figures show.

The rollout has started sluggishly, according to health experts and officials, because of factors including a high number of health workers on vacation during the holidays and the time that local health departments and clinics have needed to fine-tune appointment systems.

Mr. Azar pinned the blame Tuesday on shortcomings at the state level, such as micromanaging by governors.

Some local vaccine planners said they were caught off guard by the federal government's latest changes.

"This is a wholesale change out of the blue after months of planning," said James Garrow, spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

The city is still in the first phase of vaccinating health-care workers and nursing-home residents, Mr. Garrow said, and will now consider whether and how it can implement the new federal guidelines.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan expressed concern, during a news conference Tuesday, that issues seen in states vaccinating adults 65 years and older such as phone systems crashing could arise if his state implemented the changes.

"I don't want to cause more problems by throwing out the system that's, while slow, working OK," said Mr. Hogan, a Republican, who added that the state is doing about 16,000 vaccinations daily.

Mr. Hogan said he wanted to avoid long lines for vaccines and doses running out while people are waiting.

In December, CDC advisers recommended that initial supplies go to high-risk populations such as front-line health workers and nursing-home residents. The panel said adults 65 years and older should begin vaccinations only after doses were given to essential workers and adults 75 years and older who wanted them.

Not all states followed the recommendations, with some such as Florida and Texas offering shots to adults 65 years and older initially.

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said blending the top few priority groups -- rather than waiting to finish vaccinating each one before moving on -- would give states more flexibility to give out spare doses and avoid waste.

Yet Dr. Adalja and other public-health experts expressed concern that state and local health departments don't have the staff and vaccination sites to administer more shots faster.

The recent stimulus act provides about $8 billion for the vaccination campaign, but it isn't clear how quickly state and local health departments will get funding.

"Simply increasing supply doesn't address all of the complexities of the greatest supply-chain undertaking we witnessed during this pandemic," said Jessica Daley, a pharmacist and executive with Premier Inc., which buys drugs and medical supplies for about 4,100 hospitals.

Another concern, state and local health officials, said was the U.S. government's plans to change in two weeks how it allocates doses, to how quickly states are vaccinating from the size of their populations.

That change could complicate planning for administering doses, said hospitals and health officials, who added that they have been struggling to know when their supplies would arrive or how many they would receive.

"We need to be very careful promising people they're going to get the vaccine this month, when we don't even know if we'll have the vaccine," Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot, an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.

Write to Jared S. Hopkins at jared.hopkins@wsj.com and Peter Loftus at peter.loftus@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 13, 2021 17:22 ET (22:22 GMT)

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