AHA to HHS: Feds need to take charge in COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Dive Brief:

  • The American Hospital Association is asking that HHS Secretary Alex Azar find ways to speed up distribution of the vaccines developed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, seeking more data and information sharing so hospitals have clarity on progress nationwide.

  • A letter sent Thursday by AHA CEO Richard Pollack said “the slow pace of the vaccine rollout has led to concern about whether the task of vaccinating all who are able to take the vaccine will happen as quickly as federal leaders have suggested it would.”

  • The letter asks HHS to create a process that coordinates efforts among all states and stakeholders, improves communication and “identify and resolve barriers to the rapid deployment of millions of doses of vaccines.”

Dive Insight:

Federal approval of two highly effective vaccines against COVID-19 has been the biggest ray of hope in a pandemic that has raged for the better part of a year, killing more than 350,000 Americans to date. And while the Trump administration promised 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by the end of 2020, it has achieved only a fraction of that goal.

Similar challenges hampered distribution of personal protective equipment and testing earlier in the pandemic, when the administration delegated responsibility to the states.

The current task is made more complicated by the fact that one of the vaccines must be kept deeply frozen almost up until the point of injection. And while the recently approved a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package includes more funds for vaccine distribution – up to $9 billion in total – the obstacles toward distribution appear to remain in place.

Hospitals and nursing homes still stretched thin from high infection rates have few resources to devote to expansive vaccination programs, though other avenues could be used.

“One of the big constraints right now is just bandwidth,” Mark McClellan, former FDA commissioner and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University said during a Wednesday press call.

“Let’s find ways to partner with pharmacies that have significant capacity, let’s find ways to partner with medical practices, not hospital based but out in the community, those are not places that are doing a lot of vaccinations right now.”

Quickly distributing federal funds allocated in December could help states accelerate vaccine rollouts through those partnerships, he suggested.

The Biden administration is set to take office later this month with a goal of investing $25 billion in vaccine manufacturing and distribution. President Elect Joe Biden has also said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to boost production of vaccine-related items. Biden has also enlisted top U.S. infectious disease official Anthony Fauci, who backs a more muscular federal role.

But AHA thought the situation was dire enough to write Azar, who will be out of a job as of Jan. 20 when Biden is inaugurated. 

Hospitals, particularly in the western U.S., continue to be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Their frustration appears to have been channeled through Pollack’s four-page letter.

While Pollack said that he shared HHS’ ”goal of rapidly vaccinating as many individuals as needed to get to a level of herd immunity that will allow this country to return to normal activities,” he also noted that “in the first few weeks of administering vaccines, hospitals have seen a number of barriers to smooth and effective vaccinations.”

The goal of vaccinating 75% of the population by May 31 has been hampered by “64 disparate microplans developed by the states, a few large cities and other jurisdictions,” Pollack wrote.

Pollack urged Azar to take steps to streamline and standardize vaccine distribution; clearly communicate the progress being made in vaccinating the population; disseminate lessons that have been learned to date; and quickly resolve issues that arise.

He ended his letter with a directive printed in boldface: “We urge you to establish a process within HHS with the ability to be able to coordinate the national efforts among all of the states and jurisdictions and the many stakeholders; answer all of the questions expeditiously; establish and maintain effective communication among all involved; and identify and resolve barriers to the rapid deployment of millions of doses of vaccines.”

That task seems likely to fall on the incoming administration.

Hailey Mensik contributed reporting.

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