Amid criticism from state lawmakers about a slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Alabama, the state announced Wednesday it would begin “removing” unused vaccine doses from clinics or pharmacies that are not giving it out quickly enough and send the limited vaccine supplies elsewhere.
The Alabama Department of Public Health issued a news release Wednesday afternoon to address “misunderstandings” about the vaccination efforts in the state and announce that the new policy of “removing” unused vaccine doses from hospitals, pharmacies or other providers and sending them to places that can use it faster.
“In response to concerns that some providers are failing to administer their allotments of vaccine on a timely basis, ADPH will begin removing vaccine supplies from providers who are not administering vaccine in a timely way,” the department said. “Unused vaccine will be redirected to other providers who will administer vaccine faster.
“ADPH is surveying all providers in the state to ensure that all administered doses have been properly reported to ADPH, and to determine whether there is any available vaccine that needs to be redistributed elsewhere.”
Alabama has consistently finished at or near the bottom of vaccine distribution statistics kept by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, still ranking last among states in the percentage of the population that has been vaccinated as of Jan. 20. The ADPH data dashboard shows more doses given than the federal dashboard, and ADPH has said it is in ongoing communication with the CDC to ensure that all doses given in Alabama are counted.
But the state is under pressure to distribute the vaccine more quickly. In the waning days of the Trump administration, the CDC announced a policy to reward states that distribute the vaccine quickly with larger allocations in the future.
Tuesday, four Alabama lawmakers distributed a letter to the media saying that ADPH’s slow rollout and recordkeeping issues could cost the state from getting additional doses in the future. ADPH responded that the government currently allocates vaccine doses based on population.
The CDC policy announced last week under the Trump administration has not yet taken effect and it is unclear whether it ever will under the Biden administration.
In Wednesday’s news release, the ADPH said it had redirected its employees from their regular duties to help county health departments administer the vaccine.
“Every person who receives a COVID-19 shot is deserving of one and will receive it, as we are determined to make sure that no vaccine is sitting unused on the shelf,” Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said. “We are making every effort to get shots into arms as quickly as possible.”
ADPH says the state has received 446,150 doses of vaccine from the federal government so far and administered 184,618. Alabama has been allocated a total of 640,150 doses, but not all have been delivered. ADPH says no vaccine doses have been discarded in Alabama thus far, and the ADPH now offers a map of providers that offer the vaccine on its web site.
The state has more than 346,000 people in Phase 1a of its vaccine allocation plan and another 348,000 residents age 75 or older who currently qualify to receive the vaccine.
The state has not yet launched a promised online registry for people to sign up to get on the list to receive a vaccine. A statewide vaccine appointment hotline exists, but has been flooded with callers and is often difficult to get through. Still, Harris says supply is the state’s biggest limiting factor.
“The biggest obstacle to vaccination is still the limited vaccine supply,” Harris said. “We are attempting to manage expectations, because the timeline for receipt of vaccine has not changed and we cannot give people a resource we don’t have yet.”
Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told AL.com Wednesday that while it’s clear there were some data reporting issues with the federal database, the biggest problem is the lack of supply.
“We’ve got a number of hospitals, where the problem is not they’ve got vaccine and can’t give it,” Williamson said. “It’s that they’re out of vaccine.”
*AL.com reporter Sarah Whites-Koditschek contributed to this report.