Coronavirus vaccine

FILE - This March 16, 2020 file photo shows vials used by pharmacists to prepare syringes used on the first day of a first-stage safety study clinical trial of the potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. The world's biggest COVID-19 vaccine test got underway Monday, July 27 with the first of 30,000 planned volunteers. The experimental vaccine is made by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., and it's one of several candidates in the final stretch of the global vaccine race. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal health officials on Friday unveiled a plan to get approved coronavirus vaccines to nursing home residents free of cost, with the aid of two national pharmacy chains.

No vaccine has yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and the distribution program is contingent on that happening first.

Under the plan, trained staff from CVS and Walgreens will deliver the vaccines to each nursing home and administer shots. Assisted-living facilities and residential group homes can also participate in the voluntary program. Nursing home staffers can be vaccinated too, if they have not already received their shots. Needles, syringes and other necessary equipment will be included.

The idea is to give hard-pressed states an all-inclusive system for vaccinating their most vulnerable residents, said Paul Mango, a senior policy adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services. “We are trying to eliminate all potential barriers to getting folks safe and effective vaccines,” Mango said.

People in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities account for less than 1% of the U.S. population, but they account for about 40% of the deaths from COVID-19, with more than 83,600 fatalities logged by the COVID Tracking Project.

The Trump administration's initial attempts to promote coronavirus testing in nursing homes and to ensure sufficient supplies of protective gear were hampered by missteps and led to widespread complaints from nursing home operators and advocates for older people. The vaccine program seems designed to prevent a repeat at a time when President Donald Trump is battling to hang on to support from older voters.

Vaccines will be on their way to nursing homes within 24 to 48 hours after the FDA approves their use, Mango said.

The effort is taking place under the auspices of Operation Warp Speed, a White House-backed effort to quickly produce and distribute hundreds of millions of doses of approved vaccines, enough for every American.

Mango said he anticipates that if a vaccine is approved this year, initial supplies would be limited. Availability will improve markedly in the first three months of 2021, he said.

HHS is fielding an online survey for nursing homes to assess their interest in the program, but the allocation of vaccines will be done through state and territorial governments.

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities will not be charged for the program. CVS and Walgreens will be reimbursed for administering the shots at standard Medicare rates, officials said.

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