Governors scramble to speed vaccine effort after slow start

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FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2020, file photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom holds up a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Los Angeles. With frustration rising over the slow rollout of the vaccine, state leaders and other politicians are turning up the pressure, improvising and seeking to bend the rules to get shots in arms more quickly. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

New York’s governor threatened to fine hospitals if they don't use their allotment of COVID-19 vaccine fast enough. His South Carolina counterpart warned health care workers they have until Jan. 15 to get a shot or move to the back of the line. California’s governor wants to use dentists to vaccinate people.

With frustration rising over the sluggish rollout of the vaccine, state leaders and other politicians around the U.S. are turning up the pressure, improvising and seeking to bend the rules to get shots in arms more quickly.

Meanwhile, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday that the government will allow more drugstores to start giving vaccinations to speed up the process. If health workers aren’t lining up fast enough, he said, it is OK to expand eligibility to lower-priority groups.

“We need to not be overly prescriptive in that, especially as we see governors who are leaving vaccines sitting in freezers rather than getting it out into people’s arms,” he said.

As of Wednesday, more than three weeks into the U.S. vaccination campaign, 5.3 million people had gotten their first shot out of the 17 million doses distributed so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While that is believed to an undercount because of a lag in reporting, health officials are still well behind where they wanted to be.

The slow rollout has been blamed on a multitude of problems, including a lack of funding and direction from Washington, mismatches between supply and demand, a patchwork of approaches by state and local governments, distrust of the vaccine, and disarray created by the holidays.

Across much of the nation, health care workers and nursing home residents are being given priority for the initial, limited supplies of the vaccine at this stage. But pressure is building to let other groups step up. Louisiana began vaccinating older people Monday, while Alaska and Mississippi have given the OK for the elderly to start receiving shots over the next few days. Michigan will begin giving vaccines to seniors and front-line workers such as teachers and police next week,

The U.S. has an estimated 21 million health care workers and 3 million residents of nursing homes and other long-term care centers. The CDC said about 512,000 people in such centers have been vaccinated through a partnership between the government and the CVS and Walgreens drugstore chains.