Gottlieb says feds should expand vaccine eligibility to speed up pace of shots

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Washington — As states work to address the lag in administering coronavirus vaccines and confront a new, more contagious variant of the virus, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former chief of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), recommended officials make the vaccines more broadly available to people ages 65 and older to accelerate the pace of administration.

“Make the vaccine more generally available through the retail pharmacies, through Walmart and Walgreens and CVS to a broader population, to a general population starting with age,” Gottlieb said in an interview on “Face the Nation.” “We can walk it down the age continuum, make it available for 75 and above first, then 70 and above, and 65 and above. There’s 50 million Americans 65 and above, a large percentage of them probably want to be vaccinated. At some point, we need to allow supply to meet demand here and get the shots into the arms of the people who really want to get vaccinated and are going to go out and seek out the vaccination.”

Vaccines developed by Pfizer, with Germany’s BioNtech, and Moderna rolled out last month after receiving authorization from the FDA for emergency use. The batches went first to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, but getting shots into their arms has been slow. As of Saturday, more than 17.5 million doses have been distributed, but only 4.2 million people have received their first of two shots, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC recommended front-line essential workers and people age 75 and older, followed by those ages 65 to 74 and people ages 16 through 64 with underlying medical conditions, should be next to get vaccinated. But with the slow rollout of vaccines, Gottlieb said health officials should consider moving quickly through those delineated phases and then turning to a general vaccination program for those 65 and above.

He advocated for a “dual strategy,” in which public health departments focus on reaching vulnerable populations while retail pharmacies like Walmart, Walgreens and CVS take the lead in vaccinating the general population.

“If someone who is 70 years old or 65 years old wants to schedule an appointment at CVS to get  vaccination, they should be able to do that this month,” he said. “I think we should start working through the age brackets and just work our way down until we work off some of this supply. There’s more vaccine coming on the market every day. We’re going to have a significant backlog right now or warehouse inventory of vaccines, and that’s tragic because these could be accomplishing an important public health purpose.”

Adding to the urgency with getting shots into the arms of the American people is the emergence of a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus, which was first detected in the United Kingdom but has now been identified in California, Colorado and Florida.

Public health experts argue that following the same mitigation techniques such as mask-wearing and social distancing will help slow the spread of the new strain, but acknowledge that vaccination will be the key.

Gottlieb, however, warned the U.S. is “not vaccinating quickly enough to create backstop against the spread” of the new variant, which represents 1% of new infections. He said by March, the new strain will be the majority of infections. 

Detection of the new variant comes as the nation is experiencing another spike in coronavirus infections, with more than 20.4 million confirmed cases in the U.S. and more than 350,000 deaths. Gottlieb has predicted cases will peak in January, but said the new strain “creates more risk that this epidemic peak could get extended.”

“We still have a ways to go with this current surge of this epidemic until we start to see cases decline, hospitalizations start to decline and hopefully deaths start to decline,” he said. “A new variant does create a lot of risk, however, that we start to see accelerated spread.”

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