States report confusion as feds reduce vaccine shipments, even as Pfizer says it has ‘millions’ of unclaimed doses

But Pfizer released a statement on Thursday that seemed at odds with that explanation, saying the company faced no production issues and had more doses available than were being distributed.

“We have millions more doses sitting in our warehouse but, as of now, we have not received any shipment instructions for additional doses,” the statement read.

A total of 2.9 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was cleared for shipment this week, and 5.9 million doses of Moderna’s regimen are poised to go out next week if the vaccine is authorized, as expected. That will be on top of additional supply from Pfizer, which Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday would amount to 2 million doses next week.

That represents a sharp drop-off from what states were expecting, according to health officials in several states. At least three states received notice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday informing them of the shortfall, forcing last-minute changes to vaccine distribution plans for next week. Some places were intending to use the second shipment from Pfizer to begin vaccinating residents of long-term care facilities, officials said, creating dilemmas about whether to go ahead with those plans or to finish inoculating health-care providers on the front lines of the intensifying pandemic.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said anticipated shipments to the state in the next two weeks had been cut roughly in half. The uncertainty was even more pronounced in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said new shipments from Pfizer were “on hold,” as officials in his administration reported their expected allocation disappearing entirely in Tiberius, the online tracking system the Trump administration is using to coordinate with the states. Fred Piccolo Jr., a spokesman for DeSantis, said the numbers had come back online by Thursday but had been reduced significantly.

“It’s 40 percent less than we were originally thinking,” Washington State Health Secretary John Wiesman said in an interview on Thursday. “We thought we were getting 74,100 and now we are planning for 44,850 doses.”

Pfizer’s statement seemed to point responsibility at the federal government.

“We have continuously shared with Operation Warp Speed and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through weekly meetings every aspect of our production and distribution capabilities,” it continued. “They have visited our facilities, walked the production lines and been updated on our production planning as information has become available.”

Michael Pratt, an HHS spokesperson, denied any changes to “numbers locked in with states” and said the government was still on track to allocate enough vaccine for about 20 million people to receive their first doses by year’s end.

“Each week, OWS will let states know how many doses are available to order against for the coming week,” he said.

Warp Speed’s original plan envisioned the federal government telling states on Friday the number of doses available for order, with shipping to occur on Sunday. The senior administration official said states asked to get more advance notice so they had more time to plan. “We are sending doses that have been produced, verified and released,” the official said.

Wiesman, of Washington State, said he could appreciate the decision to provide only numbers of cleared doses, as opposed to an estimate of what might be available by week’s end. But he said states can’t plan without a longer-term sense of what they will be receiving, which has been impossible because of changing estimates from the pharmaceutical companies and from Operation Warp Speed.

“We need to have some sense of what regular production is going to be, what the throughput of the manufacturer is so we can look more than a week ahead,” he said.

FedEx and UPS are distributing the Pfizer vaccine, while Moderna’s product will be moved by McKesson, a major medical distributor. Both vaccines are two-dose regimens, and the Trump administration has elected to hold back shipments of the second dose in an effort, it says, to ensure everyone gets a booster shot.

Some state officials said the delayed shipment of the second dose only complicated their planning, while a person familiar with Pfizer’s supply, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details, said there were many more doses available that are not being shipped than simply the batches being held back for booster shots.

Another person involved in the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation said Pfizer executives were baffled the administration was not immediately distributing all of its vaccine, and instead leaving much of it on the shelves.

In one bright spot for hospitals receiving the initial shipments of the Pfizer vaccine this week, some health-care providers discovered that they could get as many as seven doses out of vials they were told contained only five allotments of the precious vaccine.

The Food and Drug Administration advised hospitals to use the additional supply, while Pfizer said the amount of vaccine remaining in the vial after the use of five doses may vary, instructing health-care providers to consult their own immunization policies.

One complicating factor was that companion kits shipped to vaccination sites by the federal government did not contain many spare syringes necessary to administer the excess doses. The administration official said additional materials will be included in the future kits to accommodate additional doses that can be drawn from the vials of Pfizer vaccine.

Josh Dawsey and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.

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