Midway through October marks the beginning of the Biden administration’s push to offer free Covid-19 immunisations to the uninsured, weeks after the government plans to make an improved version of the shot available to the general public.
This delay in availability comes at a time when the number of people hospitalised due to Covid has been on the rise, meaning that millions of Americans without health insurance will not be able to get a free vaccine at pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens.
The CDC has verified the hold up in drugstore availability; a spokesman for the organisation, Kathleen Conley, has stated that the government is currently finalising partnerships with corporations like CVS and Walgreens to deliver the vaccines for free.
She added that the CDC anticipates the new vaccination will be made available somewhere in the third or fourth week of September. However, it is unlikely that pharmacies will complete their contracts until the middle of October.
During the initial phase of the fall vaccination campaign, those without health insurance will be able to receive free immunisations at federal health centres or from independent physicians. Public health professionals express concern that this additional complexity may deter some people from receiving the vaccination.
Executive Director of the Association of Immunisation Managers Claire Hannan said, “That’s going to put a gap in the programme.” The AIMS helps organise immunisation programmes across the country. When coordinating a programme and checking to see that vaccinations are available in every county, “these kinds of things, they make a big difference.”
After the government’s Covid public health emergency declaration expired in May, as many as 30 million uninsured or underinsured people will have to pay out of pocket for Covid vaccines for the first time this autumn. Millions of persons who had Medicaid coverage before the outbreak may now be included in that number.
A $1.1 billion “bridge” programme was launched in April by the Department of Health and Human Services, promising uninsured Americans continuous access to free Covid vaccines and treatments at least through the end of 2024. As Covid cases and hospitalisations have increased for the first time since 2022, the urgency of this effort has grown in recent weeks.
The CDC has not yet finalised the contracts, but there is only about a month until the vaccine is released. The FDA insists that it had always intended to begin free vaccination distribution in pharmacies around mid-October, despite the injection being made available elsewhere sooner. This is because official agreements with the pharmacy chains would take time to negotiate. Few details have been provided to state health officials and public health experts who are planning for the on-the-ground campaign.
Several concerns have been raised concerning the pharmacy programme, Hannan added. When asked about specifics, “we’re still working that out, working on the contract” has been a common response.
About half of the doses intended for the uninsured are expected to end up in pharmacies, which have been a major distribution point during the epidemic, according to the managers of the immunisation programme, said Hannan. The remaining stockpile would be dispersed among various clinics and hospitals.
According to Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, many federally approved health centres function as clinical facilities, thus patients may need to make an appointment to get an updated vaccination.
Once the bridge programme is implemented at retail pharmacies, “real ease of access” may be expected, Plescia said.
In the beginning of a campaign where low demand for the shots is anticipated because fewer people are paying attention to Covid and the government is putting significantly fewer money into promoting the vaccine, it may be enough.
Community health centre patients often get their first vaccinations from pharmacies. According to Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, this could be even another obstacle to vaccination if pharmacies don’t stock the new shot.
In other words, “you’re going to have people showing up at the pharmacy looking to get vaccinated… and being told we’re not yet prepared to give it to you,” Benjamin warned. To paraphrase, “some of those people will come back and get vaccinated and some of those people will just get frustrated and not show up again.”
The capacity of the Biden administration to convince patients to make a Covid shot part of their annual immunisation routine will be put to the test in the forthcoming vaccination campaign, and not just among the uninsured. According to CDC data through May 10, only 17% of the U.S. population received the bivalent booster shot in 2017.
Since then, the White House has disbanded its Covid response team, leaving much of the work to the Department of Health and Human Services and the private sector. Under a separate emergency declaration, the FDA can still provide Covid-19 emergency use authorizations for Covid vaccinations, and at least one large vaccine manufacturer is ready to distribute its upgraded shot as early as September if it receives approval from the FDA and CDC.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told investors on an earnings call on 1 August that the company anticipates receiving approval for its revised Covid vaccine by the month’s end.
According to Bourla, “we believe this will allow us to commercialise the vaccine in September,” adding that Pfizer has the Omicron XBB 1.5 vaccine available and production “will not be an issue.”