More than two-thirds of the 15 million coronavirus vaccines shipped within the US have gone unused, US health officials said on Monday.
In response, the governors of New York and Florida have vowed to penalise hospitals that fail to dispense shots quickly.
In New York, hospitals must administer vaccines within a week of receiving them or face a fine and a reduction in future supplies, governor Andrew Cuomo said, hours before announcing the state's first known case of a new, more infectious coronavirus variant originally detected in Britain.
“I don’t want the vaccine in a fridge or a freezer, I want it in somebody’s arm,” the governor said. “If you’re not performing this function, it does raise questions about the operating efficiency of the hospital.”
New York hospitals on the whole have dispensed fewer than half of their allocated doses to date, but performance varied from one group of hospitals to another, Mr Cuomo said. The NYC Health + Hospitals system, the city’s main public hospital network, has only administered 31 per cent of its allotment, compared with 99 per cent for a few private hospitals in the state.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an even lower vaccine uptake for New York overall, saying fewer than one in five of the 896,000 doses shipped to the state since mid-December have been given.
In Florida, where officials have put senior citizens ahead of many essential workers for getting the vaccine, governor Ron DeSantis announced a policy under which the state would allocate more doses to hospitals that dispense them most quickly.
“Hospitals that do not do a good job of getting the vaccine out will have their allocations transferred to hospitals that are doing a good job at getting the vaccine out,” Mr DeSantis said at a briefing.
“We do not want vaccine to just be idle at some hospital system,” he added, although he did not say they would face fines.
Florida, which has dispensed fewer than a quarter of the 1.14 million doses it has received, according to the CDC, will also deploy an additional 1,000 nurses to administer vaccines and will keep state-run vaccination sites open seven days a week, Mr DeSantis said.
Mr Cuomo’s announcement that the more contagious Covid-19 discovered in the UK had been confirmed in a man in his 60s living in a town north of Albany gave new urgency to the state’s efforts to accelerate vaccinations.
At least three other US cases of the so-called UK variant have been documented since last week, one each in Florida, California and Colorado. None of the four patients has a recent travel history, meaning the variant was likely spreading person-to-person within each of the communities where it turned up.
Neither the UK variant, nor a similarly more contagious strain first found in South Africa, is believed any more lethal than the original form of the virus. Scientists say newly developed vaccines should be equally effective against both.
The US death toll has climbed to well over 350,000 out of more than 20 million known infections, with the fatality rate averaging 2,600-plus lives every 24 hours over the past week.
The staggering human toll, together with an upending of daily social life and a stifling of economic activity, has made the slower-than-expected uptake of available vaccines all the more vexing to authorities.
Medical authorities have confronted widespread distrust of immunisation safety, even among some healthcare workers, owing in part to the record speed with which Covid-19 vaccines were developed and approved 11 months after the virus emerged in the US.
But some US officials also have cited organisational glitches in launching the most ambitious mass inoculation campaign in the nation’s history in the year-end holiday season.
"The logistics of getting it going into the people who want it is really the issue," the leading US infectious disease specialist, Dr Anthony Fauci, told MSNBC. "We're not where we want to be. No doubt about that. I don't think we can blame it all on vaccine hesitancy."
The federal government has distributed more than 15 million vaccine doses to states and territories across the country, but only about 4.5 million have been administered, the CDC reported.
Those figures put the government far short of its goal of vaccinating 20 million people by the end of 2020, although officials said they expected the rollout would pick up significantly this month. – Reuters