Senate Democrats press VA for vaccine distribution plan

Lawmakers want the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to release its plan to deal with the coronavirus outbreak among its patients and a strategy to distribute a vaccine when one is available.

The department "must be ready to act to protect the health of veterans, VA staff, and their families. VA must have a comprehensive plan in place to ensure the safe, equitable, and smooth distribution of a forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine," Democrats on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee wrote in a Monday letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

The VA on Tuesday reported nearly 13,000 active coronavirus cases and 4,685 deaths among its patients. The department also passed 100,000 confirmed cases since the beginning of the outbreak.

The lawmakers asked Wilkie whether the Department of Health and Human Services has indicated how many initial vaccine doses it will allocate for the VA, as well as how the VA will then distribute its initial doses among staff and veterans.

"For COVID-19 vaccine distribution to succeed there must be a well-organized plan to meet the needs of all veterans and their providers," wrote the group, led by committee ranking member Jon Tester (D-Mont.). 

"I understand VA is developing a draft plan on COVID-19 vaccine allocation and distribution, but that it is not ready for release to Congress or the public yet. ... I am concerned VA is behind the curve."

The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved a vaccine to protect against COVID-19, though three experimental vaccines have shown promise. Drugmaker AstraZeneca announced on Monday that its vaccine candidate is up to 90 percent effective, while Pfizer and Moderna have announced 95 percent efficacy rates for their vaccine candidates.

President Trump and his administration have maintained that once a vaccine is available it will be distributed to Americans free of charge, though priority would first be given to front-line health workers and vulnerable populations.  

In a statement to The Hill, VA press secretary Christina Noel said the department "is working diligently, both internally and externally with its [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] partners, to develop a comprehensive plan to ensure availability of COVID-19 vaccine across the VA system as soon as the product becomes available." 

Noel added that under the phased plan, immunizations for veterans and staff "will be based on CDC guidelines," which include "risk of acquiring infection, risk of severe illness and death, risk of transmitting disease [and] risk of harm to society." 

The lawmakers also wanted to know if the VA anticipates providing vaccination services for any other federal agencies, states and localities, or tribes, and to what extent it will prioritize current "hot spot" areas when determining allocation of COVID-19 vaccine doses. 

"This is especially paramount as the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold in rural America," they wrote.  

In addition, the lawmakers pressed the VA to make sure that all patients and staff receive a vaccine "at no-cost to them."