Mar 26, 2021 - Health

The new vaccine waiting game

Illustration of a "now serving" sign with a lit up syringe in the center
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Congratulations! You're about to be eligible to ... wait some more for the vaccine.

The big picture: States are expanding eligibility for COVID vaccines by broad age groups — and some are opening it to all adults. But that doesn't always mean they have enough vaccine supplies to offer appointments to everyone in the new groups.

  • So even though the vaccine supplies are ramping up, many local leaders and health officials are trying to lower people's expectations so they don't get disappointed when their long wait for the vaccine isn't actually over.
  • That's the reality check many newly eligible people will face throughout the country even as President Biden ups his goal to 200 million shots in his first 100 days.

What they're saying: “The problem is not the eligibility standards. The problem is the supply," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a local TV interview this week after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo expanded eligibility to everyone 50 and over.

  • "As you add more eligibility, it's going to mean people in some cases will wait longer, because we still don't have the supply we need.”
  • After Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan opened vaccinations to everyone 60 and over, Marc Elrich, the county executive of Montgomery County, Md., warned Wednesday that “being told you’re eligible does not mean that when you preregister, that you’re going to get an appointment ... The number of vaccines is behind the number of people who are eligible.”

Other local health officials are sending similar messages.

  • “The thing that’s holding us back is just the number of doses," Gary Edwards, executive director of the Salt Lake County health department, told Axios after Utah expanded vaccinations this week to everyone 16 and over.
  • “We have staff in clinics ready to do more. They’re not busy enough," he said.
  • Here's how Dizhi Marlow, a spokesperson for the Harris County public health department in Texas, described Houston's readiness after the state announced that all adults will be eligible next week: “As of right now, we do not know if we will get more vaccines next week. However, we are preparing to administer more if we get more.”
  • And Mitzi Kline, a health department spokesperson in Franklin County, Ohio, which includes Columbus, said, “We do expect the demand to outweigh the supply" after the state opened vaccines to everyone 40 and over and prepares to expand them to all adults next week.
  • "We continue to ask residents to be patient as we expect the vaccine supply to continue to increase over the coming weeks," she said.

The other side: Russ Schwartz and Katherine Quirk, who launched a Facebook group to help Florida seniors find vaccines, say the state — which is expanding by age groups — has steadily increased its vaccine supplies and sites to the point where it's easier to help people find options now.

  • "We’re not seeing that people in the [age 50 and over] group are saying, 'I can’t get an appointment anywhere,'" said Quirk. "It makes you think this is a good, progressive way to open it to the age groups."

Between the lines: Some states are moving a lot faster than Biden's goal of making all Americans eligible for vaccinations by May 1. The latest include Florida and California; all Florida adults will be eligible to get the shots as of April 5, and California will be open to all adults on April 15.

  • So far, 40 states have announced dates when the vaccines will be open to all adults, and most of them are doing it before May 1, according to Jennifer Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation who's tracking the vaccine rollout across the states.

The bottom line: "It could put some states and governors in a difficult position if they say 'yes, we’re opening the gates' and a lot of people can’t get appointments," Kates said.

  • "It’s going to be a balancing act, and the messaging is going to be very important."
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