SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California health officials will reshuffle vaccine priorities to allow anyone over the age of 65 to receive the vaccine, as demand among health care workers continues to decrease.
“There is no higher priority than efficiently and equitably distributing these vaccines as quickly as possible to those who face the gravest consequences,” said Governor Gavin Newsom. “Individuals 65 and older are now the next group eligible to start receiving vaccines.”
The move comes as an increasing number of states shift from inoculating frontline workers to the elderly, as Covid-19 has proven to be deadly to people over 65 and not nearly as fatal to younger people.
States including California initially followed guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had recommended prioritizing frontline workers and states, instituting a bureaucratic process to ensure the appropriate individuals received shots and people didn’t jump the line. But on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services urged states to shift priorities as such rules were slowing a process that requires urgency and efficiency.
“With our hospitals crowded and ICUs full, we need to focus on vaccinating Californians who are at highest risk of becoming hospitalized to alleviate stress on our health care facilities,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health. “Prioritizing individuals age 65 and older will reduce hospitalizations and save lives.”
California faces one of the largest operational challenges in the nation, given the daunting task of getting shots into the arms — twice — of its 40 million residents.
So far, the state’s efforts have proceeded slowly.
As of Tuesday, the state has used only 25% of the 3.3 million vaccines it received, a rate far below the national average, prompting Newson and Public Health Director Mark Ghaly to acknowledge the lag during a Tuesday press conference.
Texas and Florida have already begun prioritizing those 65 and older in their vaccination rollouts, bucking the initial CDC recommendations.
Newsom said Wednesday that the state is still dependent on the federal government for its vaccination supply. But U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told the New York Times this week that states will receive new shipments based on how much of their current allotment has been used.
“Every vaccine dose that is sitting in a warehouse rather than going into an arm could mean one more life lost or one more hospital bed occupied,” Azar said.
The outgoing secretary also encouraged states to distribute more of their vaccines for first doses rather than keeping them back for the necessary second dose. The federal government is committed to doing the same.
Newsom said beginning next week, Californians can sign up for vaccinations and receive notifications for when they are eligible.
Ghaly said the state’s emphasis on equity and exposure risk in the first phase of the vaccination rollout had led to delays that placed California below the national average. Most states have averaged a distribution rate of three doses per 100 people, where California continues to hover closer to two doses per 100 people.
While the difference may seem infinitesimal, when applied to a large population like California it means hundreds of thousands of people are left unvaccinated when compared to the average rate.
Public health officials caution restraint around the distribution of the first dose without keeping back a necessary amount for the second dose.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December require two doses given a few weeks apart to work effectively.
Distributing the vaccines more quickly means Americans can return to a semblance of normalcy faster. Some predict the pandemic is peaking currently and will continue to wane until it is subdued as early as this summer.
Infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has said he believes things will look more like normal in the United States by autumn.
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