US health agency agrees to release withheld COVID vaccines following governors’ request

Trump Administration holding back about 50% of existing vaccines to guarantee second dose

FILE - In this Saturday Jan. 2, 2021 file photo, doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University and U.K.-based drugmaker AstraZeneca are checked as they arrive at the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath, England. (Gareth Fuller/Pool via AP, File) (Gareth Fuller)

LANSING, Mich. – The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has agreed to release millions of COVID-19 vaccines that were being held back by the current administration after several governors submitted a request.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, along with seven other Democratic governors, submitted a letter to the HHS last week requesting the federal government release and distribute coronavirus vaccines being held back as demand for the vaccine grows in Michigan and across the country. The HHS agreed Tuesday, Jan. 12 to release the vaccines -- which Michigan officials say were held back by the Trump Administration for “unknown reasons.”

“Michigan and states across the country remain ready to get more shots in arms, which is why the Trump Administration’s decision to grant our request and release millions of doses of the vaccine is so crucial,” Whitmer said in a statement Tuesday. “It will take all of us -- the federal government, state and local leaders, health departments, and everyday Americans -- to ensure everyone can get the safe and effective vaccine. There is still more work to do, which is why yesterday, I sent a letter to the Trump Administration requesting permission to directly purchase up to 100,000 doses of the vaccine for the state of Michigan. I am eager to hear back from the federal government regarding my request, and will continue to work with them and leaders everywhere to end this pandemic and save lives.”

Gov. Whitmer also sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar requesting permission to purchase up to 100,000 doses of the COVID vaccines for the state on Monday, but the agency has not responded to that request as of Tuesday.

President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration announced that it intended to release the millions of withheld vaccines when they take office after the governors submitted their request to the HHS. According to Michigan officials, based on publicly reported information, the federal government has “upwards of 50%” of vaccines held back by the Trump Administration for “reasons unknown.”

“The federal government currently has upwards of 50% of currently produced vaccines held back,” wrote Whitmer and governors of California, Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Washington and Wisconsin. “While some of these life-saving vaccines are sitting in Pfizer freezers, our nation is losing 2,661 Americans each day, according to the latest seven-day average. The failure to distribute these doses to states who request them is unconscionable and unacceptable. We demand that the federal government begin distributing these reserved doses to states immediately.”

The Trump Administration has withheld the vaccines in an effort to guarantee that people can get a second dose, which is required of both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccine for maximum protection against COVID-19.

Rather than hold onto second vaccine doses, Biden plans to instead accelerate shipment of first doses and use the levers of government power to provide the required second doses in a timely manner. Secretary Azar raised questions about Biden’s plan last week, telling a hospital forum on Friday that “we’re pushing the system as much as I as secretary believe is ethically and legally appropriate.”

A recent scientific analysis in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine estimated that a “flexible” approach roughly comparable to what Biden is planning could avert an additional 23-29 percent of virus cases when compared to the “fixed” strategy the Trump administration is following. Of course, that’s assuming a steady supply of vaccines will be available.

Read more: With virus surging, Biden to speed release of COVID vaccines

Though Biden will be inaugurated in just over a week on Jan. 20, lawmakers believe the vaccines should be released right away as the virus continues to surge across the nation.

In Michigan, coronavirus cases are increasing by a moving 7-day average of 3,071 new cases per day and virus deaths are increasing by an average of 97 per day, as of Monday, Jan. 11. There were about 95,000 active COVID cases in the state on Jan. 11.

A total of 523,618 coronavirus cases have been reported in Michigan since the pandemic began, in addition to 13,401 total virus deaths. In some states -- like California, Texas and Florida -- the numbers are far greater.

The state of Michigan has entered its second phase of coronavirus vaccinations on Jan. 11, but there are not enough doses to meet the growing demand. Michigan health officials are urging patience as the vaccination process unfolds, while the state attempts to secure more doses to meet the need.

Read: Michigan health departments urge patience on COVID vaccines: ‘Demand is overwhelming’

“It’s a tremendous relief to add vaccination to the resources we have to prevent COVID-19 from causing additional harm, but this process will take time,” says Jimena Loveluck, MSW, health officer with Washtenaw County Health Department. “We need everyone’s patience, and we need to keep doing everything possible we can to prevent the spread of illness – including wearing face masks, social distancing and isolating or quarantining when needed.”

Related: Michigan COVID-19 vaccinations: How to find appointments, info on phases

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.