Nearly all of the nation’s more than 15,000 nursing homes have opted into the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution program that would provide the medication to long-term care facilities at no cost. 

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced Wednesday that 99% of U.S. skilled nursing facilities have signed up for the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, while 100% of facilities in 20 states have signed up. His comments came during a media briefing where he, along with other federal officials, discussed the progress of the Operation Warp Speed vaccine initiative. Two companies have reported vaccines exhibiting more than 95% efficacy in testing stages.

“By the end of December, we expect to have about 40 million doses of these two vaccines available for distribution, pending FDA authorization — enough to vaccinate about 20 million of our most vulnerable Americans — and production would continue to ramp up after that,” Azar said during Wednesday’s media briefing. 

The Trump administration in mid-October announced the vaccine program after reaching an agreement with retailers CVS and Walgreens to administer the vaccines free of charge to facilities once approved. Sign-ups for the program ended the first week of November.

Azar stressed the need of using pharmacy networks to provide vaccinations, saying the “ultimate goal here is to make getting a COVID-19 vaccine as convenient as getting a flu shot.” 

The optimistic vaccine news comes as COVID-19 cases are increasing dramatically across the country, he noted. Nursing homes nationwide experienced a 73% increase in new weekly cases between mid-September and the first week of November, according to a new provider industry report.

“Even as we face daunting epidemiological trends around the country, we have reasons for optimism,” Azar said. 

“But at the same time that we have such good news on vaccines, we know we face daunting trends in the virus in most parts of the country. Right now is not the time for anyone to let their guard down,” he later added. “We continue to encourage Americans to follow the three W’s: Wash your hands, watch your distance, wear your face coverings where you can’t watch your distance, and avoid settings where you can’t do those things.”