States Fear Shortfall of Supplies for Vaccine Rollout, U.S. Watchdog Says

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Many states fear they won’t have the supplies they need to administer Covid-19 vaccines and are still grappling with a deficit of coronavirus testing materials, according to a report from a top federal watchdog that calls for “urgent actions” to fight the pandemic.

Thirty-eight states told the Government Accountability Office that they were concerned about having enough supplies to distribute and administer vaccines, according to the report Monday by the nonpartisan agency. Between a third and half of states had shortages of some testing supplies in October, including rapid point-of-care tests, the GAO found.

States were mostly able to fulfill requests for personal protective equipment but relied on federal stockpiles because they couldn’t get the gear on the open market, the report said.

The GAO recommended steps to ensure adequate supplies of testing and protective gear, improve safety in nursing homes, and make scientific decisions around vaccines and public-health guidance more transparent.

The preparedness of states to distribute vaccines is becoming more pressing as regulators consider whether to grant emergency authorization to experimental shots from Moderna Inc. as well as Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech SE. Clearances could be granted within weeks.

Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to accelerate vaccine development, “has aimed to procure and assemble” kits including needles, syringes and alcohol pads, sufficient to deliver 660 million vaccine doses, according to a Warp Speed document.

The GAO report underscores how some problems that hobbled the U.S. virus response from the earliest days persist, even as the country has improved on some fronts. The approaching arrival of vaccines creates new issues that the federal government will have to address in the middle of a change in power, the GAO said, and as cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to surge.

The GAO repeated recommendations it made two months ago that U.S. health and emergency authorities clearly outline specific ways the federal government will address supply shortages, “document roles and responsibilities for supply chain management functions” and help states plan for future needs.

The Department of Health and Human Services disagreed with the recommendations in September and continue to disagree, the GAO said. HHS didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Political Influence

The report also highlighted doubts over whether important guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been influenced by other parts of government.

Specifically, a revision to CDC guidelines over the summer that said people who had been exposed to Covid-19 but weren’t experiencing symptoms don’t need to be tested “did not follow the routine agency process,” the GAO report said. “Furthermore, according to CDC officials, HHS and the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinated the change rather than CDC.”

The reversal sparked a backlash from public-health experts and was later changed. The New York Times reported at the time that the initial change was made over CDC scientists’ objections.

The GAO recommended that officials clearly communicate “the scientific rationale for any change to testing guidelines at the time the change is made,” a recommendation HHS concurred with.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulates nursing homes, commissioned a report on nursing-home safety in the pandemic that produced 27 recommendations in September. But CMS hasn’t yet produced a plan to follow those recommendations and measure progress toward putting them in place, the GAO reported. It urged the agency to do so quickly.

HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with GAO’s recommendations, according to the report.

The GAO report said the Department of Veterans Affairs should resume inspections of more than 150 state veterans’ homes that house 20,000 veterans. Those inspections were halted in March. The GAO urged the VA to collect timely data on Covid cases and deaths in veterans’ homes. The VA concurred with the recommendations.

The report also outlined steps to improve unemployment data reporting and oversight actions the government should take to address fraud in the programs created by the $2.6 trillion in economic relief funds passed by Congress earlier this year.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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