FDA chief urges states to allow COVID-19 vaccinations of lower-priority groups

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The leader of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday urged states to allow lower-priority groups to get vaccinated against COVID-19 if their doses would otherwise go to waste.

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn told reporters he thinks the federal guidelines for vaccination, which recommend starting with health workers and nursing home staff and employees, make sense. 

However, Hahn said he thinks “it’s reasonable” to expand the groups, and not get too fixated on finishing one before moving on to others, such as essential workers, first responders or people over the age of 65.

The ultimate goal is to vaccinate as many people as possible, Hahn said, and in cases where people may be hesitant to get a shot, it doesn’t make sense to keep those doses on a shelf or let them go to waste.

“I would strongly encourage that we move forward with giving states the opportunity to be more expansive in who they can give the vaccine to,” Hahn said during an Alliance for Health Policy event. 

Hahn said the decision is ultimately up to individual governors, but there should be “a data- and science-driven approach to this.”

Most states drew up plans that initially followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for the first phase of vaccinations. But the rollout has been slow, marred by a lack of federal funding and unclear communication about the number of doses coming each week. 

More than 21.4 million doses of vaccine had been distributed across the U.S. as of Thursday, but just over 5.9 million doses have been administered, according to the CDC.

Recently, federal officials have expressed concern that strict adherence to the prioritization plans is contributing to the slowdown.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Wednesday urged governors not to micromanage the vaccination process. He said it’s better to get shots into arms quickly, even if every single health worker hasn’t been vaccinated yet. 

“Right now, there is no reason that states need to complete, say, vaccinating all health care providers, before opening up vaccinations to older Americans or other, especially vulnerable populations,” Azar said.

While many states are changing plans on the fly, others have held steadfast to their initial rules, refusing to let providers vaccinate anyone who falls outside the narrow categories in group “1a.” 

That tension is most on display in New York, where an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) threatens providers with a potential $1 million fine for vaccinating someone outside the state’s eligibility protocols. 

At the same time, hospitals will also face a $100,000 fine and risk not receiving further coronavirus vaccine shipments if they don’t administer doses within a week of getting them.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) has been pleading for more flexibility. Close to 30 percent of health workers in the city have declined a chance to be vaccinated, but hospitals aren’t allowed to give the shots to others who may want it, like people over the age of 75, first responders or transit workers.

De Blasio said Friday the city has 270,000 unused vaccine doses and is waiting for the state to allow them to be used on people age 75 and older.

Tags Andrew Cuomo Bill de Blasio CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Coronavirus coronavirus vaccine COVID-19 FDA Food and Drug Administration inoculation Stephen Hahn Vaccine

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