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Government To Allocate Vaccine To States Based on Population, Not Risk


No COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized yet, but plans to distribute them once they do become available are ramping up. The government announced this week that they have already told states how much vaccine they can expect to receive. And NPR health reporter Pien Huang is here to give us an update on vaccine distribution plans.

Hey, Pien.


CHANG: Hey. All right. So how is the government deciding the actual number of vaccine doses each state is going to get?

HUANG: Basically, they're using population. So government officials in charge of vaccine distribution explained it yesterday. Alex Azar, Health and Human Services secretary, said they just wanted to keep it simple.


ALEX AZAR: And on the initial allocations to follow a per capita over the age of 18 population-based formula for distributing the vaccine.

HUANG: This applies to the first 6.4 million vaccine doses. Each state will get a certain amount, determined by how many adults live there. Now, this is a change in policy from what they had said before. Last month, government officials said they would allocate vaccines based on recommendations from an advisory group to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now they're saying, never mind. They've gone ahead and figured out how many doses each state should get.

CHANG: Wait a minute. So what is the difference between what they're going to be doing and what the CDC would recommend? Do we even know?

HUANG: Yeah. Well, the CDC's advisory committee is looking at specific groups of people who are at high risk. So these are groups like health care workers or older people or those with underlying conditions, people who are either more likely to get COVID or to die from it if they do get it. The committee says that at the beginning, when vaccine doses are expected to be the most limited, they want to make sure that those first doses are going to people who can benefit the most. So the committee met this week to weigh the benefits of putting nursing home residents ahead of essential workers, for instance. But they've been waiting for a vaccine to get authorized before they make final recommendations.

Government officials initially said that the committee's guidance would determine how many vaccines each state should get, and it would be based on the number of people in those risk groups. Now the government says they can't wait for these recommendations. States with more people will get more vaccine, and states with fewer will get less.

CHANG: OK. So if the government is not waiting for the CDC committee's recommendations, what does that mean for states?

HUANG: Well, state and local authorities actually ultimately are responsible for getting vaccines into people's arms. And they've already been doing a lot of planning around distribution. Many states have indicated that they actually do plan to follow the CDC's advice for putting high-risk groups first. Some states like Colorado have taken what they've heard from the CDC so far and from a couple other sources, and they've come up with their own allocation plans. Others say they're going to wait for those recommendations to be posted, and they plan to follow them pretty closely. So within states, the CDC committee's recommendations are still expected to carry weight.

CHANG: OK. So at this point, do we know exactly when a vaccine will become available?

HUANG: Not yet, but government officials do think it's getting close. The Food and Drug Administration has a meeting scheduled for December 10 to review the first application for a COVID vaccine. This is a bid by drug companies Pfizer and BioNTech to get their vaccine authorized for emergency use. And if all goes well, government officials say those very first vaccines could go out shortly after that in December.

CHANG: That is NPR health reporter Pien Huang on an update for vaccine distribution.

Thank you, Pien.

HUANG: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.