Alex Azar
Alex Azar, Health and Human Services Secretary

Nearly all of U.S. nursing homes have signed on to participate in the federal government’s long-term care COVID-19 vaccine delivery program, according to federal officials. The announcement comes on the heels of promising vaccine news for older patients.

Drugmakers Pfizer and BioNTech on Wednesday revealed new data showing that their COVID vaccine candidate safeguards 94% of adults over 65 years old, as well as having 95% effectiveness in patients overall, and in all ethnicities studied.

Also on Wednesday, officials with the Operation Warp Speed vaccine program expressed confidence that both the Pfizer vaccine and an equally high-performing candidate from Moderna may be approved for use within weeks. Doses will be shipped to state and local jurisdictions for access by priority populations within 24 hours of approval, they said. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s plan to ease future delivery to nursing homes and assisted living appears to have achieved industry-wide buy-in. Federal agencies reached out in October to encourage long-term care operators to sign-up for the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, highlighting retail chain pharmacies as vaccine partner options. And last week, additional agreements were made with pharmacy chains and networks of independent pharmacies to fill in any gaps in distribution coverage, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.

“The ultimate goal here is to make getting a COVID-19 vaccine as convenient as getting a flu shot,” he said. “This easy option compliments the agreements we made last month with CVS and Walgreens for them to offer vaccines in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which present special challenges. We have seen tremendous uptake of that option already; 99% of skilled nursing facilities across the country have signed up, and 100% of facilities in 20 states are signed up.”

Initial vaccine supplies likely will be scarce, and a formal decision on which populations will receive the first shipments won’t be made until drug approvals are announced, officials said. But most of the planning around the vaccine rollout has centered on healthcare workers and vulnerable groups such as long-term care residents.

Officials also said they were taking a “fair and equitable” approach to each phase of vaccine distribution with a simultaneous nationwide rollout, said Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed. “There will be no haves and have-nots. And we are driving hard to make sure that happens,” he said.