U.S. COVID-19 vaccine supplies strain to meet wider eligibility, second doses

By Peter Szekely
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The isolated shortage of COVID-19 vaccines continued on Saturday under pressure from growing demand as previously vaccinated Americans returned for their required second shots and millions of newly admitted people scrambled to get their first.
The gaps in supply resulting from the start of the U.S. vaccination effort in its second month caused some health systems to suspend appointments for first-time vaccine seekers and a New York health system to cancel a number of existing vaccines.
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"As eligibility increases, you only increase demand, but we cannot increase supply," said Joe Kemp, spokesman for Northwell Health, over the phone to Reuters.
Northwell, New York's largest healthcare provider, only offers appointments when more vaccines are being given and only after doses are allocated to people scheduled for their second shots, Kemp said.
Although the flow of supplies has been sporadic, Northwell expects to offer appointments in the coming week, he added.
Both approved vaccines, one from Pfizer Inc and BioNTech and the other from Moderna Inc, require a booster three to four weeks after the first shot to maximize their effectiveness against the coronavirus.
While healthcare workers and residents and nursing home workers were given top priority, eligibility for the vaccines has expanded since then. Some states have opened them to healthy people aged 65 and over and to people of all ages with pre-existing medical conditions.
In addition to New York, signs of vaccine supply strains appeared in Vermont, Michigan, South Carolina, New Jersey, and Oregon.
In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown said vaccinations for seniors and educators would be delayed, while Vermont Governor Phil Scott said the state would focus solely on his 75+ year olds because of "unpredictable" federal shipments.
"Rather than promising limited coverage to a broader population who we know we can't vaccinate everyone at once, we believe our strategy will shoot in the arms faster, more efficiently, with fewer deaths," Scott said on Twitter.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said last week that the loose requirements would put 7 million of New York's 19 million residents in doubt for vaccinations.
New York's Mount Sinai Hospital announced Friday that it had canceled vaccination appointments through Tuesday due to "sudden changes in vaccine supplies."
An official at NYU Langone Health, another health giant, said he had suspended new appointments indefinitely because he had not received confirmation that he would receive more vaccines.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday that while the city expanded its vaccination capacity, supplies were still coming in at a "very meager" 100,000 doses a week, which put them on the way to dry up next week to run.
De Blasio was among the three dozen metropolitan mayors who last week asked the incoming government of Biden to send COVID-19 vaccine shipments directly to them, bypassing state governments.
Jack Sterne, a spokesman for the state, blamed the federal government for the supply problems. He said he reduced vaccine shipments in New York by 50,000 doses to 250,000 in the coming week.
"The problem was the lack of allotment from Washington, and now that we've increased the eligible population, the federal government is still unable to meet demand," Sterne said via email.
Adding to interstate tensions was a dispute in which several governors accused the Trump administration on Friday of deceptively pledging to distribute millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses from a supply that the U.S. Secretary of Health has since confirmed he doesn't exist.
Since the first vaccine was administered in the US in mid-December, nearly 12.3 million doses out of 31.2 million distributed doses have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The total includes 1.6 million people who received both doses, the CDC said.
Since the pandemic began, 23.4 million Americans have been infected with the coronavirus, of which 392,153 have died, according to a Reuters balance sheet.
While critically ill patients weigh on healthcare systems in parts of the country, particularly California, the national hospitalization rate has flattened in the past two weeks to hit 127,095 as of Friday.
One popular model from the University of Washington is that January will be the deadliest month of the pandemic, claiming more than 100,000 lives.
However, the newly revised model of the university's Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation calls for the monthly toll to be lowered afterwards, dropping to around 11,000 in April when more people are vaccinated.
"By May 1, some states could be close to herd immunity," the IHME said.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely; editing by Dan Grebler)
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