Federal vaccine reserve has already been emptied, dashing hopes of a surge in supply

By KCBS Radio

When Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar announced this week that the federal government would begin releasing coronavirus vaccine doses that were being held in reserve for second shots, it turns out that no such reserve existed, according to federal and state officials briefed on the matter.

The Washington Post reports the Trump administration had already begun shipping out what was available before the end of December, meaning the limited vaccine supplies health officials across the country are dealing with now will not be increasing in size as some had expected.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown wrote on Twitter that she was informed Thursday that states will not be receiving any additional shipments of vaccines, calling the news “disturbing.”

"I am demanding answers from the Trump Administration. I am shocked and appalled that they have set an expectation on which they could not deliver…this is deception on a national scale."

States including California have been struggling to quickly scale up their ability to administer vaccines after Azar announced earlier this week that seniors 65 and older are now eligible to get vaccinated, with many believing their supplies would increase dramatically as the federal government released its stores.

Dr. Ames Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said this has left states without the supplies needed to offer those shots.

"(There) wasn’t a lot of effort thought about how we actually turn these vaccines into vaccinations. I do think that putting this all on the states and now having the states be stuck with an issue where they’ve been told that they’re getting more doses but those are already there - it’s really mind boggling to me."

The Trump administration's initial policy had been to hold back second doses to protect against the possibility of manufacturing disruptions, but that approach had shifted in recent weeks as Operation Warp Speed leaders became confident that the supply chain was robust enough to ensure a steady stream of doses and started pulling second doses directly off the manufacturing line.

On January 8, President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team announced that he would release all available doses when he took office. Azar initially criticized the announcement, calling it shortsighted, but then announced several days later that federal government would embrace the policy.

The Washington Post’s report means that when Azar criticized the Biden team, administration officials had already begun shipping out reserve doses more than a week earlier.

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