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Some U.S. pharmacies to begin getting direct shipments of coronavirus vaccine

Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House’s covid-19 response, attended President Biden’s signing of executive orders on the coronavirus pandemic during his first days in office.
Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House’s covid-19 response, attended President Biden’s signing of executive orders on the coronavirus pandemic during his first days in office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Several thousand pharmacies across the United States will start to receive direct shipments of coronavirus vaccine next week in the first phase of a strategy intended to simplify the ability to get shots, White House officials said Tuesday.

Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House’s covid-19 response, said the 1 million doses that will be sent to pharmacies starting Feb. 11 come on top of a modest increase in vaccine allocations to states that is beginning this week.

And to help states cope with financial burdens created by the pandemic, Zients said, the government will reimburse them retroactively for emergency expenses associated with fighting the public health crisis, including the purchase of masks and gloves, and the mobilization of the National Guard.

Taken together, the measures announced Tuesday reflect an eagerness by the Biden White House to portray itself as presiding over a more active federal response than its predecessor at a time when the virus is rampant, more worrisome variants have arrived in the United States and demand for the two authorized vaccines far outstrips supply.

“We are doing everything we can to effectively vaccinate individuals across the country,” Zients said during a briefing, added on short notice to the White House’s three-times-weekly schedule of coronavirus-fighting updates.

The direct shipment to retail pharmacies, he said, will begin with a group of 6,500 stores that, if the approach works well, could swell to include perhaps 40,000 chain drugstores, independent pharmacies and supermarkets with such facilities inside. The initial locations are being chosen, in part, to focus on communities whose residents have disproportionately borne the burden of severe illness and death from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

The decision to send vaccine doses straight to pharmacies is based on the premise that they may be more familiar and easier to navigate — especially for older Americans who are a current priority in the mass vaccination campaign — than websites run by public health departments.

The idea originated last fall with the Trump administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been working with states and U.S. territories to identify the first participating stores. In the two months since they began receiving vaccine doses, states have been able to transfer some of the batches to pharmacies, if they choose.

But the doses scheduled to be shipped to certain stores next week will mark the first time the program has moved from theory to fact.

Zients sought Tuesday to tamp down expectations for how much this would help Americans frustrated by the difficulty of getting vaccine appointments.

“Many pharmacies across the country will not have vaccines or will have very limited supply,” he said, without predicting a time frame for widening the use of stores.

He also announced that, starting this week, states are receiving 5 percent more vaccine doses, in addition to an already-announced increase of 16 percent, bringing the total to 10.5 million doses a week.

White House officials announced last week that they were on the cusp of buying an additional 200 million vaccine doses to be available this summer. They said the two manufacturers whose vaccines have been authorized for emergency use, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, would each provide 100 million additional doses. If the purchases come through, they would increase by one-third the number of vaccine doses available in the United States months from now — but would not accelerate the pace of vaccination in the short term.

The retroactive reimbursement of states’ pandemic-related expenses, dating to the start of 2020, is estimated to cost $3 billion to $5 billion, according to White House information. Zients said that sum does not depend on whether Congress approves $350 billion President Biden is seeking to stem the pandemic as part of what the administration calls the American Rescue Plan.

As of late Tuesday afternoon, nearly 53 million vaccine doses have been distributed nationwide, and 33.5 million shots have been given, according to The Washington Post’s tracking.

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, state health officials testified that they are being helped by additional vaccine doses they recently started to get, combined with greater predictability of what will be forthcoming. But the five state officials, appearing before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, gave a mixed picture, saying they could use much more vaccine.

Some said the three-week advance notice of their weekly allotments is enabling them to better plan how and where to distribute the doses.

Joneigh S. Khaldun, chief medical executive for Michigan’s health and human services department, said the three-week advance notice is “very helpful because I can now tell my providers” how much vaccine to expect.

“The transparency and predictability is improving, as are the number of doses,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Still, she added, “We could absolutely use more federal help.”

Ryan said her state is dispensing 80,000 shots a week and will reach 96,000 by the middle of the month. But she said its vaccine supply lags behind its capacity to offer 300,000 injections a week now and 400,000 by the end of the month.

Clay Marsh, the coronavirus “czar” for West Virginia, said that state is giving 23,600 doses a week. If it had more vaccine, he said, it could be administering 125,000 shots. West Virginia has one of the nation’s oldest populations, and three-fourths of its covid-19 deaths have been among people older than 70.

Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.