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Governors scramble to speed vaccine effort after slow start

Associated Press

New York’s governor threatened to fine hospitals if they don’t use their allotment of COVID-19 vaccine fast enough. His South Carolina counterpart warned health care workers they have until Jan. 15 to get a shot or move to the back of the line. California’s governor wants to use dentists to vaccinate people.

With frustration rising over the sluggish rollout of the vaccine, state leaders and other politicians around the U.S. are turning up the pressure, improvising and seeking to bend the rules to get shots in arms more quickly.

Meanwhile, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday that the government will allow more drugstores to start giving vaccinations to speed delivery. If health workers aren’t lining up fast enough, he said, it is OK to expand eligibility to lower-priority groups.

“We need to not be overly prescriptive in that, especially as we see governors who are leaving vaccines sitting in freezers rather than getting it out into people’s arms,” he said.

As of Wednesday, more than three weeks into the U.S. vaccination campaign, 5.3 million people had gotten their first shot out of 17 million doses distributed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While that is believed to an undercount because of a lag in reporting, health officials are still well behind where they wanted to be.

Across much of the U.S., health care workers and nursing home residents are being given priority for the initial, limited supplies of the vaccine at this stage, but pressure is building to let other groups step up, and some states have given the OK for the elderly to start receiving shots.

The slow rollout has been blamed on a multitude of problems, including a lack of funding and direction from Washington, mismatches between supply and demand, a patchwork of approaches by state and local governments, distrust of the vaccine, and disarray created by the holidays.

The U.S. has an estimated 21 million health care workers and 3 million residents of nursing homes and other long-term care centers. The CDC reported that about 512,000 people in such centers have been vaccinated through a partnership between the government and the CVS and Walgreens drugstore chains.

Azar announced that in addition to the nursing home program, pharmacies from 19 chains will be allowed to help now with dispensing shots to ease pressure on hospitals, which have been the main vaccine providers so far. More than 40,000 drugstores will be eventually be involved, he said.

The pharmacies will still have to follow state guidelines for who gets in line first.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, estimated this week that between 70% and 85% of the U.S. population will ultimately need to be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity,” a goal he said could be achieved by the start of next fall.

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