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Expert: More information is needed to determine if government plan to vaccinate people over 65 will work

First responders getting vaccinated on Monday in Brockton
First responders getting vaccinated on Monday in BrocktonDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A public health expert said Tuesday that more information is needed to know if it’s a good idea for the Trump administration to recommend giving a coronavirus vaccine immediately to everyone over 65 in the country.

Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a former assistant US health secretary in the Obama administration, said that at “all phases of the vaccine rollout, the challenge will be how best to leverage limited supply to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.”

“That’s why national advisory groups have identified priority populations and a recommended order for covering them. Currently, the country is nowhere close to vaccinating all those in the first set of priority groups, i.e., frontline healthcare workers, people in longterm care facilities, frontline essential workers (such as first responders) and those over age 75,” said Koh, who also once served as Massachusetts public health commissioner.

“We need much more detailed information about whether available vaccine doses can then also meet the need to cover those over age 65,” he said in an e-mail.

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Information is needed “about current vaccine production, supply and availability as well as rates of uptake and dose administration to see how feasible this proposal will be going forward,” he said.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced the new guidelines Tuesday, multiple media outlets reported. The idea is to accelerate lagging distribution of the much-anticipated shots at a time the pandemic is raging across the United States.

Dr. Tom Frieden, who was director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Obama administration, was enthusiastic Tuesday before the upcoming announcement, saying in a tweet, “There’s no time to waste—these new federal guidelines will speed up vaccinations.”

The federal officials are also expected to recommend Tuesday that the vaccines be given to all adults with pre-existing conditions that make them more likely to develop serious illness from the virus, The New York Times reported.

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In addition to the eligibility changes, health officials are also adding more community centers and pharmacies to the list of places where people can be vaccinated.

And they’re also expected to announce the government will also no longer hold back vaccine doses to ensure that those who receive a first dose will have a second dose in reserve. Instead, all existing doses will be sent to states to provide initial inoculations. Second doses are to be provided by new waves of manufacturing.

The announcement comes after President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team said last week that he planned to order the distribution of almost all available doses of the vaccines.

Critics of the idea have raised concerns that people might get a single dose and not be able to get the second dose that will provide maximum protection. A Biden transition official told the Globe that the incoming administration believes vaccine manufacturers will be able to scale up production to ensure all recipients will get their second dose on schedule, and will use the Defense Production Act, as necessary, to guarantee supply.

Dr. Christopher Gill, an associate professor of global health at Boston University, said Tuesday in an e-mail that changing the guidelines to allow vaccination of those 65 and older was “the right thing to do.”

But, he said, the issue is not so much what order people are vaccinated in as that “the logistics of the vaccine rollout was badly mismanaged due to a lack of leadership at the federal level. If we can’t get doses out to vaccination centers, then arguing about who goes next ... seems to be missing the point.”

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Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.


Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.