The Department of Veterans Affairs cares for millions of veterans and employs hundreds of thousands of staff, but this week the federal agency was denied additional doses of the coronavirus vaccine this week, internal communications show.
Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership established to develop, manufacture and distribute the vaccine, includes the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense and other agencies. OWS has been responsible for allocating vaccine doses across the country.
In an email on Monday, Tammy Czarnecki, deputy assistant undersecretary for health for operations told VA health network directors, chief medical officers and other health care leaders that while they might have the capacity for more vaccine doses than they're currently allotted, they won't be getting them for now, amid the worst outbreak of the virus for the department during the pandemic so far.
"I recognize several of you have put together solid mass vaccination plans and many have ... (requested) additional doses of vaccine for your mass vaccination clinics," Czarnecki wrote in the memo obtained by Connecting Vets. "Unfortunately, at this time, Operation Warp Speed has denied our request. Currently, they do not have additional vaccines to send to VHA this week. Hopefully, by the end of this week, we will have information on what our recurring vaccine allotment will be, but at this time there is no plan to increase our allocation."
VA and White House officials did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced Tuesday that Operation Warp Speed planned to release all supplies of the COVID-19 vaccines and was directing states to vaccinate all people 65 and older, along with those 65 and younger with pre-existing health conditions that could put them at greater risk.
VA hospitals across the country are dealing with another significant spike in active cases among patients and staff in recent weeks, with active cases reaching record levels again.
VA staff who spoke to Connecting Vets and are not being named because they said they feared retaliation from the department, said they have enough refrigeration and have met other requirements necessary to receive double or even triple the amount of doses they're currently being provided.
The lack of vaccine doses for VA stands in the way of not only helping VA vaccinate its staff of roughly 400,000 and the about 9 million veterans in its care, but also non-veterans it cares for through its Fourth Mission as America's backup healthcare system in times of crisis.
VA medical staff told Connecting Vets the problem is not necessarily vaccine production, since Pfizer and Moderna so far have told officials they have more doses to provide. The holdup is within the bureaucracy.
"We are getting less than 30% of what could be done," one VA staffer said.
The shipment to VA for this week was about 99,900 doses for the entire system and the final week of December was about 115,000.
On Jan. 5, VA announced it had administered more than 146,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses -- most to medical staff.
More than 14,000 high-risk veterans had received their first of two vaccine doses. More than 132,000 VA staff had also received their first doses, or roughly a third of VA's total workforce.
VA initially rolled out the Pfizer vaccine to 37 locations and expanded to 128 more of its medical centers when the Moderna vaccine was approved.
According to its vaccine plan, VA is administering doses to frontline healthcare workers and veterans in its community living centers and spinal cord injury/disorder centers first to protect those most at risk and prevent further spread. Some VA facilities this week were already notifying veterans that they were moving on to the next priority group -- veterans older than 75.
VA leaders admitted to Congress in December ahead of the vaccine rollouts that initial supplies would fall woefully short of the millions of vaccines the department will need for all veterans who need or want it, along with thousands of staff.
Despite the severely limited supplies of the vaccine, internal VA communications obtained by Connecting Vets in December showed the department's plans to waste additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine from overfilled vials containing as many as one to two extra full doses, specifically despite Food and Drug Administration authorization. VA also did not plan to track the doses it discarded.
Following Connecting Vets' exclusive report, VA announced it had reversed its decision and would follow FDA authorization for the use of additional full doses found in individual vials.