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Two of the nation’s top federal health agencies asked Maryland officials for help in bolstering their supplies of COVID-19 vaccines for their staff, underscoring the challenges of the vaccines’ initial rollout.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said he is seeking a greater federal role in securing COVID-19 vaccines for the staff of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In December, Hogan’s office announced that Maryland had agreed to provide 2300 doses of the Moderna vaccine from its initial allotment to vaccinate frontline NIH healthcare workers.
At a press conference, which was posted online on February 8 by WBALTV, Hogan said he intends to coordinate with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser to seek more assistance. Many FDA and NIH employees live in Maryland, and some reside in nearby Virginia and Washington, DC.
“Here’s how crazy it is: We had the NIH and the FDA call me directly to beg for vaccines because the federal government hasn’t provided them,” Hogan said.
The NIH declined to comment on Hogan’s remark when asked by Medscape Medical News. In response to questions from Medscape, the FDA sent a statement saying the agency is “currently exploring a number of avenues to secure vaccine for a subset of employees or certain contractors that are identified as ‘frontline essential public health workers.’ “
Hogan’s comment at the news conference was in response to a question about the FDA’s directing some of its employees to seek the COVID-19 vaccine through their county governments.
Much of the FDA’s work involves reviewing documents, so many FDA staffers are not at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 because of their employment. On the basis of their circumstances and risk factors, some FDA employees could choose to defer seeking vaccination in their local community until vaccines are more widely available, the agency said in its statement to Medscape Medical News.
For those who do seek to be vaccinated, FDA has made clear that criteria for vaccinations may differ from state to state and from county to county. The decision whether to offer a COVID-19 vaccination to an FDA employee or contractor will be made at the individual state or local level and will be subject to availability.
Help for the NIH
Separately, Maryland’s congressional delegation on January 28 asked the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help the NIH secure more COVID-19 vaccines.
The NIH was not among the five federal agencies equipped to provide vaccinations to their own workers, according to the letter from the Maryland lawmakers, led by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD). Those agencies include the Indian Health Service, the Department of Defense (DOD), the Veterans Health Administration, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Department of State.
Other federal agencies are expected to work with states and local jurisdictions. In many cases, federal employees will be vaccinated through established state or jurisdictional routes, such as vaccination clinics, primary care providers, or pharmacies, the lawmakers said in their letter.
As of late January, Maryland had provided NIH with 5600 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, and the federal Operation Warp Speed (OWS) program had provided the NIH with 4100 doses. But the NIH needed an additional 4636 doses of vaccine to fully vaccinate its 14,336 frontline employees and contractors who were eligible during Phase 1 of distribution, wrote Cardin and his cosigners in the letter.
The cosigners were Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Maryland Democrats Reps. Anthony G. Brown, Steny H. Hoyer, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John P. Sarbanes, Kweisi Mfume, Jamie Raskin, and David Trone, as well as Republican Rep. Andy Harris, MD.
The delegation told HHS that NIH had been notified that Maryland couldn’t guarantee any additional future vaccine allocations to the NIH.
“We would like to ensure that Maryland’s population as well as valuable federal employees have equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine,” the lawmakers wrote. They asked OWS to provide NIH with additional vaccines. “Such a step will promote confidence in the government’s response during this difficult time and assure federal employees that the government is prioritizing their health and well-being.”
HHS didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the Maryland congressional delegation’s letter.
Separately, HHS on Thursday announced with DOD the planned purchase of an additional 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from both Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc. The orders bring the vaccines purchased by the US government from these two companies to a total of 600 million doses, enough to vaccinate 300 million people, HHS said.
Kerry Dooley Young is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. She earlier covered health policy and the federal budget for Congressional Quarterly/CQ Roll Call and the pharmaceutical industry and the Food and Drug Administration for Bloomberg. Follow her on Twitter at @kdooleyyoung.