Image of HHS Secretary Alex Azar at a Tuesday Operation Warp Speed press briefing
HHS Secretary Alex Azar at a recent Operation Warp Speed press briefing

With almost one million first COVID-19 inoculations completed in U.S. long-term care facilities, federal officials say they will ask the states to begin vaccinating all seniors and vulnerable younger adults.

COVID-19 vaccination clinics have been held in more than 11,000 skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities, with thousands more planned in the coming weeks, said Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, in a Tuesday briefing.  

“By the end of next week, 95% of long-term care facilities will have had their first visit with vaccine doses,” Azar said. In addition, available doses now exceed the number needed to ensure second doses at the 21 and 28 day marks for these “Phase 1a” priority recipients.

“All of this means that it is time to move on to the next phase of the vaccination campaign,” Azar said.

HHS is encouraging governors to open up vaccinations to people aged 65 years and older, and to those under age 65 with comorbidities as determined by the states. It also is expanding distribution channels — encouraging states to work with the 40,000 pharmacy partners currently approved to administer COVID-19 vaccines.

Protecting the vulnerable as cases surge

The continued vaccination of long-term care and other Phase 1a recipients can easily overlap with a rollout to next priority group, much like groups are boarded on an airplane, Azar explained.

“Expanding eligibility to all of the vulnerable is the fastest way to protect the vulnerable,” he said. “It’s simply much easier to allocate managing vaccines and appointments to everyone 65 and over, rather than narrower and more complex categories.”

The expanded rollout is urgent in light of surging COVID-19 cases, added Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert R. Redfield, M.D.

“This is particularly important right now, as we’re seeing the post-holiday surge. We have many jurisdictions now that are on the verge of going from a linear growth to an exponential growth, and we believe it’s critically important at this time to get those most vulnerable people into vaccination programs.”