Racing to ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations, states have opened mass inoculation sites and expanded eligibility. But a big problem remains: The supply isn’t increasing quickly enough.
The United States, facing a growing threat from more contagious and possibly deadlier virus variants, is gradually administering more doses every day, now up to an average of about 1.7 million, according to a New York Times database.
But states are also steadily widening access beyond the most vulnerable groups, front-line health care workers and nursing home staff and residents. Now, some state officials say they would be ready to administer thousands more shots every day — if they could get them.
New York state has used close about 85% of its first and second doses, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday, but is forging ahead to expand eligibility to people with underlying health issues. He said his state would be vaccinating more people if it had more doses.
On Sunday, the first day that appointment sign-ups opened for New Yorkers with chronic health conditions, tens of thousands flooded websites and many were left waiting for appointment openings. Still, state officials said that they considered the expansion a success. They said that 250,924 people had successfully made vaccination appointments Sunday, more than any single day since the registration system was introduced in mid-January.
Those who are now eligible include adults who have certain health conditions that may increase their risk of severe illness or death from the coronavirus. Aside from obesity and hypertension, other conditions that qualify New Yorkers for the vaccine include pulmonary diseases and cancer, Cuomo said this month. He also made pregnancy a qualifying condition.
The expansion comes as concern grows about new variants circulating. In an interview with “Axios on HBO” that aired Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, warned Americans not to become complacent as more people are vaccinated.
“We still might have a stumbling block coming with the appearance of variants that would dominate the picture,” he said.
U.S. officials have said that the more contagious virus circulating in Britain, B.1.1.7, could become dominant in the United States by March. British government scientists are increasingly finding that variant to be linked to a higher risk of death.
Coronavirus vaccines appear to protect against B.1.1.7, but are less effective against the B.1.351 variant, which has become dominant in South Africa.
Last week, California announced that it would soon become one of just a handful of states to expand vaccine access to people of any age with underlying health issues or severe disabilities. But supply is short.
The mass vaccination site at Dodger Stadium shut over the weekend because Los Angeles had exhausted its supply, Mayor Eric Garcetti said. He said the city received just 16,000 doses last week — roughly a day’s worth.
“When vaccines do get to Los Angeles, we know how to administer them,” Garcetti told reporters. “We have a great infrastructure set up, of amazing people, and we will give them to folks efficiently and safely. But the problem is, we still aren’t receiving enough doses soon enough.”
Officials in Georgia say constrained supply is getting in the way of expanding eligibility. When the Atlanta Board of Education called on Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this month to make teachers eligible for vaccinations, the governor said the state was not getting enough doses for residents who were already eligible.
Many districts around Atlanta, he said, had stopped scheduling new vaccine appointments because federal deliveries were falling so far short of the demand.
Experts say expanding eligibility requires a delicate balance of prioritizing those most at risk and ensuring doses do not go to waste.
“I don’t think anyone would want to be the person to receive the vaccine at the expense of someone else who is higher risk,” said Dr. Sarita Shah, a public health researcher at Emory University in Atlanta.
Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said expanding eligibility too quickly could backfire. “People are going to be angry when they are promised a second dose and don’t get it on time,” he said.
Some experts, like Dr. Robert Murphy, director of Northwestern’s Institute for Global Health, have called for more flexibility for places that have already vaccinated their most vulnerable residents.
“I think the dangerous thing is some places are too regimented with the current rules,” Murphy said. “If you’ve got an extra 50 vials, that’s 500 doses, and nobody is coming, and this thing is going to expire in a matter of days or weeks — give it out.”