States 'need more supply' of COVID-19 vaccine amid push to grant more shots

COVID-19 vaccine
Several state public health officials told Congress of hang-ups they experienced in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. (Getty/Meyer & Meyer)

Several states told a congressional panel Tuesday that they have the capacity to dole out thousands more vaccines than they have been getting from the federal government.

“We simply need more supply,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We are getting 80,000 doses a week and have capacity for 300,000 doses now.”

Ryan was one of several state health officials that testified Tuesday before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on hang-ups in the vaccine rollout.

Right now, West Virginia gets about 23,600 doses a week but can handle 125,000 and could go over 200,000, said Clay Marsh, the state’s COVID-19 czar.

Marsh said it would be a good idea to put together an integrated portal or pathway to allow each of the leaders of the state and the federal response to “come together to freely or quickly exchange information.”

Several officials said that they faced contradictory information about how many doses they were getting when the vaccines were approved in December.

“We need improved communication channels and fixes to tools provided to states,” said Ngozi Ezike, M.D., director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. “The feds should provide states with clear projections for vaccine allocations to allow and enable planning weeks into the future.”

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Ryan added that her state could use more help to hire more staff to handle the vaccine rollout as they are pulling staff from contract tracing or other duties.

Some states are also looking at how to boost the supplies they do get.

Louisiana, for instance, gets approximately 58,500 vaccines a week and deposit an average 23,400 doses to CVS and Walgreens as part of a partnership for the pharmacy chains to deliver doses to long-term care facilities.

“Fortunately, we have requested and been approved to keep and utilize doses that would have gone to that partnership,” wrote Courtney Phillips, M.D., secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health, in her testimony. “That has allowed us to further expand our network of vaccine providers and increase Louisiana’s overall vaccinated numbers.”

Phillips said that there have been problems with the partnership, including a lack of proactive communication, awareness and speed of vaccinations.

“Previously, we have been required to deposit an amount into the program’s dosage bank to help meet the demand in our state; however, due to the slow pace in vaccinating this population, the result has been federal doses unused,” Phillips wrote.

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The challenges come as the Biden administration aims to take a greater role in directing the vaccine distribution compared to the Trump administration.

The White House announced Tuesday that it will start shipping COVID-19 vaccines directly to retail pharmacies starting next week.

That effort will start with 1 million doses given out to 6,500 pharmacies. The goal is for the chains to vaccinate people at a rapid clip. CVS Health said back at the virtual J.P. Morgan healthcare conference last month that it expects to vaccinate 20 million to 25 million people monthly once the program is opened broadly.

Biden is also pressing for congressional approval of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that includes $20 billion for a national vaccine program. It remains unclear whether the package will get through Congress, but Democrats are working to use a budgetary procedure called reconciliation to get it through the Senate with a simple majority.