US states step up Covid-19 vaccinations amid hopes that new rules can ease latest surge

The pace of vaccinations has risen to 700,000 a day nationwide. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Trump administration moved on Tuesday (Jan 12) to accelerate vaccinations of Americans against Covid-19, releasing the rest of the doses it had been keeping in reserve and recommending states immediately open inoculations to those aged 65 and over.

Federal and state health officials have scrambled in recent days to step up vaccination programmes that had given shots to only 9.3 million Americans as coronavirus infections remain at record highs in many US states nearly two weeks into the new year.

Many US states had strict rules in place giving shots to healthcare workers and nursing home residents first, telling "non-essential workers" they might wait months for their turn.

"We've already distributed more vaccine than we have healthcare workers and people in nursing homes," US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told ABC News. "We've got to get to more channels of administration." Roughly 27.5 million doses have been distributed by the US government to states so far, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Azar said the outgoing administration, which had been keeping doses in reserve to make sure that all those who got a first inoculation receive their second shot on schedule, was now confident enough in the supply chain to release that stockpile.

Last week, a spokesman for Joe Biden said the President-elect, who takes office on Jan 20, would release more of the reserved doses.

The pace of vaccinations has risen to 700,000 a day nationwide and was expected to hit 1 million a day within 10 days, officials said.

"Michigan and states across the country remain ready to get more shots in arms, which is why the Trump Administration's decision to grant our request and release millions of doses of the vaccine is so crucial," Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement.

Whitmer, who had backed the lower vaccination age, is seeking permission from the US government to purchase 100,000 vaccine doses directly from manufacturer Pfizer.

The US Food and Drug Administration has authorised the vaccine from Pfizer and partner BioNTech SE and a second vaccine from Moderna Inc for emergency use.

As of Monday night, the United States had reported a total of 22.5 million coronavirus infections and 376,188 deaths during the pandemic, the most of any country. Nearly 130,000 Americans were hospitalised with Covid-19 at midnight on Monday.

Grim scenes at California hospitals

A Reuters tally has shown that the number of Covid-19 patients requiring hospitalisation may have levelled off, at least temporarily, although public health officials warn that further spread may still be seen from holiday gatherings.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly cited several promising trends in Covid-19 metrics statewide in recent days, including a slowing in confirmed daily case numbers and a leveling off in positive tests.

The number of new Covid-19 hospitalisations statewide has fallen to about 2,500 admissions a day over the past two days from a daily average of about 3,500 admissions in previous days.

Ghaly called that "the biggest signal to me that things are beginning to flatten and potentially improve." Despite the encouraging statistics, staff at Providence St Mary Medical Centre in Apple Valley, California, said that the situation was grim.

"Where in the beginning we were overloaded with a lot of patients - we still have a lot of patients - but now it seems like they're sicker than they've ever been before," said Mary Mendy, executive director of acute care services at the hospital some 144km northeast of Los Angeles.

"And every day there's Code Blues on the floor and more and more patients are updated to ICU. It's devastating," Mendy said.

The latest surge has potentially been compounded by a more infectious variant of the virus first seen in the UK and now found in at least 10 US states - California, Florida, New York, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Connecticut, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Texas. Not all US governors welcomed Azar's direction to widen the group of Americans eligible for vaccines.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he would grudgingly agree to include people as young as 65 and those with pre-existing conditions, even though he personally opposes it. "The policy and the intelligence of the federal system eludes me," Cuomo told a news briefing.

Public health experts have said no US state has so far come close to using up its federal allotments of vaccines.

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