By Peter Szekely and Dan Whitcomb
(Reuters) – The Trump administration moved Tuesday to speed up vaccinations of Americans against COVID-19, releasing the rest of the doses it had kept in reserve, and advised states to immediately open vaccinations for those 65 and older.
Federal and state health officials have scrambled in recent days to intensify vaccination programs that have only given shots to just 9.3 million Americans, as coronavirus infections remain at record highs in many U.S. states nearly two weeks into the new year.
Many U.S. states had strict rules for giving shots to health care workers and nursing homes first, telling “non-essential workers”
“We have already distributed more vaccines than we have to health care workers and people in nursing homes,” U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar told ABC News. “We need to get to more administration channels.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. government has so far distributed approximately 27.5 million doses to the states. Azar said the outgoing government, which had kept doses in reserve to ensure that all those who received a first inoculation receive their second shot according to plan, was now confident enough in the supply chain to free up this stock.
Last week, a spokesman for Joe Biden said the president-elect, who takes office on January 20, would release more of the reserved doses.
The vaccination rate has risen to 700,000 a day nationwide and was expected to hit 1 million a day within 10 days, officials said.
“Michigan and states across the country remain ready to get more gunshots, which is why the Trump administration’s decision to comply with our request and release millions of doses of the vaccine is so crucial,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement.
Whitmer, who had backed the lower vaccination age, is asking the US government for permission to buy 100,000 vaccine doses directly from manufacturer Pfizer Inc.
The US Food and Drug Administration has approved the vaccine from Pfizer and partner BioNTech SE and another vaccine from Moderna Inc for emergency use.
On Monday night, the United States had reported a total of 22.5 million coronavirus infections and 376,188 deaths during the pandemic, the most of any country. Nearly 130,000 Americans were hospitalized with COVID-19 at midnight Monday.
GRIM SCENES IN CALIFORNIA HOSPITAL
A Reuters figure has shown that the number of COVID-19 patients in need of hospitalization has at least temporarily leveled off, although public health officials warn that further spread can still be seen from holiday gatherings.
California Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaly, cited several promising trends in COVID measurements throughout recent days, including a slowdown in confirmed daily case numbers and a smoothing in positive tests.
The number of new COVID admissions throughout the country has fallen to approx. 2,500 admissions per day during the last two days from a daily average of approx. 3,500 admissions in the previous days. Ghaly called it “the biggest signal to me that things are starting to get flat and potentially getting better.”
Despite the encouraging statistics, staff at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, California that the situation was bleak.
“Where we were initially overloaded with many patients – we still have many patients – but now they seem to be sicker than they have ever been before,” said Mary Mendy, CEO of Acute Care Services. at the hospital about 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
“And every day there is Code Blues on the floor, and more and more patients are being updated to the ICU. It’s devastating,” Mendy said.
The latest increase has potentially been amplified by a more infectious variant of the virus, first seen in the UK and now found in at least 10 US states – California, Florida, New York, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Connecticut, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Texas .
(Reporting by Peter Szekely, Barbara Goldberg and Maria Caspani in New York, Anurag Maan in Bangaluru and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Berkrot, Peter Cooney and Cynthia Osterman)