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Michigan to receive fewer doses of Pfizer vaccine next week

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Health care officials in the state were alarmed Thursday to learn Michigan was among a number of states targeted for fewer doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine next week than they were previously told to expect. 

The state learned about the reduction in a conference call late Wednesday with officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, prompting worries among health care workers about potential delays in shots for themselves and long-term care residents.

Michigan health officials expected about 84,000 doses next week. Instead, the state's allocation will be 60,000 doses, about a third less, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The state received 84,825 doses from Pfizer's first shipments this week.

"We did get our initial allocation as expected. But estimates for future allocations for future weeks were decreased," state health department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said. 

Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant in Portage, Mich., Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020.

But in a statement sent to The Detroit News, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contended it hasn't reduced its allocations to the states. 

"Reports that jurisdictions’ allocations are being reduced are incorrect. As was done with the initial shipments of Pfizer vaccine, jurisdictions will receive vaccine at different sites over several days," DHHS said in the statement. 

"This eases the burden on the jurisdictions and spreads the workload across multiple days. This same process was successfully used for the initial distribution of Pfizer’s vaccine, and we are simply applying lessons learned."

But the Michigan Health and Hospital Association wasn't buying it. 

"We have not received an explanation for why Michigan — or other states frankly —have had their allocations reduced, and we would certainly welcome a better explanation," said Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president for public policy with the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

Sudderth said news of the reduction was disappointing to hospitals whose front-line health care workers are first in line to receive the vaccine under Michigan's distribution plan.

"We learned this morning that these shipments in week two were going to be smaller than originally indicated," Sudderth said. "We’re very disappointed. We have caregivers that are ready to be vaccinated. This will certainly impact the speed with which we’re able to provide that to health care workers."

For subscribers:These Michigan hospitals are the first to get Pfizer doses

Photos:Pfizer begins shipping COVID-19 vaccine

In recent days, governors and health leaders in at least 10 states have said the federal government has told them that next week’s shipment of the Pfizer vaccine will be less than originally projected.

Little explanation was offered, leaving many state officials perplexed. Illinois, Montana, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Indiana also have been told to expect smaller shipments.

“This is disruptive and frustrating,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter Thursday after learning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the state’s allocation would be cut by 40%. “We need accurate, predictable numbers to plan and ensure on-the-ground success.”

Missouri’s health director, Dr. Randall Williams, said his state will get 25% to 30% less of the vaccine next week than anticipated. A statement from the Iowa Department of Public Health said its allocation will be “reduced by as much as 30%, however, we are working to gain confirmation and additional details from our federal partners.”

But senior Trump administration officials on Thursday downplayed the risk of the states' delays, citing confusion over semantics, while Pfizer said its production levels have not changed.

In Washington, D.C., two senior Trump administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning said states will receive their full allocations, but misunderstandings about vaccine supply and changes to the delivery schedule might be creating confusion.

One official said the initial numbers of available doses that were provided to states were projections based on information from the manufacturers, not fixed allocations. Some state officials might have misunderstood that, the official said.

The two officials also said changes the federal government made to the delivery schedule, at the request of governors, might be contributing to a mistaken impression that fewer doses are coming. The key change involves spacing out delivery of states’ weekly allocations over several days to make distribution more manageable.

“They will get their weekly allocation, it just won’t come to them on one day,” one official said.

Asked about the federal government's contention that no reduction had occurred, Sudderth said: "Well, that’s news to the states that have been told there’s been a reduction."

According to Sudderth, DHHS advised the states several weeks ago what they could expect in shipments during each of the first three weeks of vaccine distribution. 

"So this is a reduction from what we originally were told would be coming in Week Two," she said. "Perhaps they don’t consider it any reduction because none of those numbers were ever set in stone." 

Allocations to the states are determined by Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership created by the federal government to develop and deploy a COVID-19 vaccine, based on each state's population over age 18, a spokesman for the federal agency said in an email to The News.

"Allocations will depend on the amount of vaccine available. Each week, (Operation Warp Speed) will let states know how many doses are available to order against for the coming week," the statement said. 

Pfizer, which developed the first approved COVID-19 vaccine with the German drugmaker BioNTech, made it clear that as far as production goes, nothing has changed.

“Pfizer has not had any production issues with our COVID-19 vaccine, and no shipments containing the vaccine are on hold or delayed,” spokesman Eamonn Nolan said in an email. “We are continuing to dispatch our orders to the locations specified by the U.S. government.”

The company said in a written statement that this week it “successfully shipped all 2.9 million doses that we were asked to ship by the U.S. Government to the locations specified by them. We have millions more doses sitting in our warehouse but, as of now, we have not received any shipment instructions for additional doses.”

The senior administration officials said Pfizer’s statement about doses awaiting shipping instructions, while technically accurate, conveniently omits the explanation: It was planned that way.

The federal officials said Pfizer committed to provide 6.4 million doses of its vaccine in the first week after approval. But the federal Operation Warp Speed had already planned to distribute only 2.9 million of those doses right away.

Another 2.9 million were to be held at Pfizer’s warehouse to guarantee that individuals vaccinated the first week would be able to get their second shot later to make protection fully effective.

Finally, the government is holding an additional 500,000 doses as a reserve against unforeseen problems.

Pfizer said it remains confident it can deliver up to 50 million doses globally this year and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021.

The first U.S. doses were administered Monday, including in Michigan, and already this week, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly health care workers, have been vaccinated. The pace is expected to increase next week, assuming Moderna gets federal authorization for its vaccine.

The FDA's Vaccines and Related Biological Product Advisory Committee recommended Thursday that the FDA approve the Moderna vaccine. The FDA isn't obliged to follow the committee's advice but usually does, and the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine last week only a day after the committee recommended authorization. 

Pfizer started shipping out the vaccine Saturday from its Portage facility after being granted emergency use authorization by the federal Food and Drug Administration last Friday night.

Heidi Pillen, senior director of Pharmacy Services at Beaumont Health, Michigan's largest health care system, wondered Thursday how the reduction will affect efforts to vaccinate employees at Beaumont's eight hospitals. 

"We do not fully understand what will happen to site allocations now that the allocation to the state has been reduced," Pillen said.

Associated Press contributed.