Via Teleconference

12:16 P.M. EST

     MR. ZIENTS:  Thank you for joining us.  I’m Jeff Zients, White House COVID Coordinator.  I’m pleased to be joined today by Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, Chair of the Biden-Harris COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.  We’ve just completed our weekly call with governors from around the country who — where we provided updated on our efforts to defeat COVID-19. 

     President Biden has laid out a comprehensive national strategy to tackle this pandemic.  The national strategy utilizes all of the powers and resources of the federal government, working closely with state and local leaders, tribal leaders, and those on the frontlines in communities across the country.  Central to the strategy is getting all Americans vaccinated as quickly and as equitably as possible.

Increasing vaccine supply, increasing the number of vaccinators, and providing more places for people to get vaccinated, including supporting local and state partners in their efforts to get needles in arms: all three are critical.  Today, we’re taking new actions on vaccine supply and on the number of places for people to get vaccinated.

I’ll start with our efforts on vaccine supply.  When we came into office three weeks ago, the weekly delivery was 8.6 million doses.  And today we’re announcing that we will increase weekly vaccine doses going to states, tribes, and territories to 11 million.  So that is a total of a 28 percent increase in vaccine supply across the first three weeks.

I know Americans are eager to get vaccinated, and we’re working with manufacturers to increase the supply of vaccines as quickly as possible.  As supply ramps up, we’re also creating new convenient locations for vaccinations.  These include standing up community vaccination centers, deploying mobile vaccine units, and launching new programs with pharmacies.

Today, we are announcing another step in this effort, focused on some of our hardest-hit populations.  Starting next week, we will begin a new program with federally qualified health centers, or as many people know them, “community health centers.”  Community health centers provide primary care services in underserved areas, reaching almost 30 million people.  Under this new program we will begin directly sending vaccine supply to community health centers, enabling them to vaccinate the people they serve.  Community health centers are an important part of our broader strategy to ensure we are reaching everyone with our response.

I will turn it over to Dr. Nunez-Smith to provide more information on the community health center program, but before I do, I want to mention another important point that we discussed in our governors meeting today. 

Equity is core to our strategy to put this pandemic behind us, and equity means that we are reaching everyone, particularly those in underserved and rural communities and those who have been hit hardest by this pandemic.  But we cannot do this effectively at the federal level without our partners on the state and local level sharing the same commitment to equity.  They need to lead this work, as they know their communities better than anyone.

Through efforts like community vaccination centers located in the hardest-hit areas, mobile units, the community health center program we’re launching today, and efforts to build vaccine confidence, we are providing tools to communities around the country to do this work.  And we look forward to partnering with them to ensure equity.

Over to Dr. Nunez-Smith, who will provide more information on the community health center program. 

Dr. Nunez-Smith.

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH:  Thanks so much, Jeff.  You know, as Jeff said, we are providing a suite of tools to state and local leaders as they work to reach their underserved and hardest-hit populations.  We are very excited about the announcement of this additional program today towards that effort.

So, as you just heard, we are very excited to be partnering with federally-qualified health centers, also known as community health centers.  They do provide really substantial primary care services across many underserved areas.  You know, in our country there are more than 1,300 community health centers spanning every U.S. state and territory, and serving over 30 million people.  Two thirds of their patients live at or below the federal poverty line, and 60 percent of patients at community health centers identify as racial or ethnic minorities.

So, in addition to the doses that have already been allocated to states and then additionally through the pharmacy program, we will begin shipping doses directly to these community health centers.  We will be starting with a phased approach and will ramp up over time.  But we anticipate a subset of FQHCs or community health centers to be able to start ordering vaccines as soon as next week.

Ultimately, in this initial program phase, we plan to reach 250 community health centers.  And again, across this initial phase, our goal is to allocate 1 million doses during this phase.  That’s 500,000 first doses and 500,000 second doses.

You know, to Jeff’s point, equity is our North Star here.  This effort that focuses on direct allocation to the community health centers really is about connecting with those hard-to-reach populations across the country.  So this includes people who are experiencing homelessness, you know, agricultural and migrant workers, residents of public housing, and those with limited English proficiency.  And as always, we plan to be very inclusive across jurisdictions.  So in this initial phase, we will include at least one community health center in each state and territory. 

You know, as the program further scales, vaccines will become available to all 1,400 community health centers across states and territories should they want to participate.

So as we said, this new community health center program is just one tool to reach underserved communities, and it really does build on other efforts like the community vaccination centers, mobile clinics, and the pharmacy program.  And a really critical part of this work is also addressing vaccine confidence, which we know is lower in underserved communities than it is for the national average.

So the tools that we are deploying at the federal level are meant to aid state and local leaders, but are in no way a substitute for the important work that they must lead on the ground to address equity.  So we look forward to continue to work hand in hand with our partners and provide the federal resources necessary to ensure that everyone gets vaccinated.

So thank you for your time.  With that, I’ll turn it back over to you, Jeff.

MR. ZIENTS:  Good.  Well, why don’t we go ahead and open it up for questions.

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thanks, Jeff.  First we’re going to go to Meg Tirrell at CNBC.

Q    Hi.  Well, thanks for having this.  I’m just wondering about equity in terms of the Federal Pharmacy Program and the signups that you’re seeing at pharmacies.  How do you think it can be assured that the pharmacies that are receiving these vaccines are supplying and serving the communities where they are, rather than having, you know, folks from other places coming in and making appointments?

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Nunez-Smith?

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH:  Yes, thank you for that question.  You know, I think one of the first things we have to recognize and understand are the structural barriers that present challenges for many people connecting with vaccination.  And so the location of the vaccination sites is critical.  You know, CDC is working very closely with those participating in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program to make sure that we see, you know, a substantial number of pharmacies located in socially vulnerable areas moving forward.

MR. ZIENTS:  Next question.

MODERATOR:  Next we’ll go to Dan Vergano at BuzzFeed.

Q    Dan Vergano, BuzzFeed.  I’m wondering if you could just say more broadly: Is there just going to be an inevitable trade-off in terms of efficiency versus equity here?  I mean, if we didn’t prioritize at all, we would, you know, be giving this to anybody, it would go faster.  Is the country just going to have to accept that if we’re going to reach people who haven’t been treated well in the past, we’re going to have to lose a little efficiency for the sake of equity?

MR. ZIENTS:  I don’t — I don’t accept that premise at all.  I think we can do this in a fair, equitable, and efficient way.  And I think today’s announcement about utilizing the community health centers is part of a multi-pronged strategy to reach all Americans.  So, efficiency and equity are both central to what we’re doing, and I don’t see any trade-off between the two.  I think they go hand in glove.

Q    Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Next we’ll go to Josh Wingrove at Bloomberg.

Q    Hi there.  Thank you so much for doing this.  Can you just maybe run through the topline numbers?  You said 11 million a week to states.  Jeff, Dr. Nunez-Smith, did you put a number?  I didn’t quite catch it on how many would go to community health centers.  And, of course, there was pledge of up to a million to pharmacies.  Should we be adding these all together for total shipments? 

And secondly, I wanted to ask that there’s a report that you’ve told — the governors, excuse me, that Pfizer is boosting its shipments this quarter by 50 million doses.  Is that accurate?  Can you give us any more detail on that?  Thank you.

MR. ZIENTS:  Yeah, on the Pfizer piece — I’ll take the second one first: Not to my knowledge whatsoever.  What I think Pfizer did announce a couple of weeks ago was that they were going to deliver 120 million doses in the first quarter, up from 100 million, and that they would fulfill their commitment for their first 200 million doses by the end of May.  But I’m not aware of any additional Pfizer announcements.  So Pfizer did announce those accelerated deliveries a couple of weeks ago, which is obviously good news. 

I’ll remind people also that the President ordered the next 200 million doses, which will provide us with 600 million doses — 100 each from Moderna and Pfizer to bring us to a total of 600 million this summer, which is enough vaccine to vaccinate all Americans. 

Let me just run through the topline numbers.  Three weeks ago, states were — when we walked into office, states were receiving 8.6 million vacs.  States, territories, and tribes who were receiving 8.6 million weekly doses.  That is now 11 million, which is up 28 percent.

You’re correct that we also announced the pharmacy program, which we’re starting with a million allocation.  That begins this week.  And then the program we were talking about today with community health centers is a million allocation as that program phases in across the next couple of weeks.

MODERATOR:  Great.  Next we’ll go to Yamiche Alcindor of PBS.

Q    Hi, thanks so much for taking my questions.  The first question I have is: Can you talk a little bit about who in these community health centers will begin?  Is there a criteria for age or for income level?  I’m just wondering how you’ll — will be able to track, as a country, who gets the vaccines that go through these community health centers. 

And are there other tools being given to these health centers in order to get — to help them both convince people to get the vaccine and its safety, but also to just distribute it and make sure people are aware of it?

MR. ZIENTS:  Good questions.  Over to you, Dr. Nunez-Smith.

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH:  Great.  Thank you for those questions.  So to the first one: You know, as we select the participating FQHCs, CDC and HRSA is working very hard on those selection criteria, in particular identifying those FQHCs or community health centers who have a significant number of patients who experience homelessness, for example, for example; who are agricultural migrant workers; residents of public housing; and limited English proficiency.  So some of those special populations.

The Federally Qualified Health Centers also in our initial ramp-up really are ones that serve more than 2,000 individuals 65 and older and have large population size — so, really, ones that are able to handle, kind of, the increased capacity, particularly around the vaccine storage and staffing, and with a mix of urban and rural. 

So the prioritization is still going to be per local jurisdiction guidelines, but making sure, for example, that when over-65 is eligible, that because someone has limited English proficiency or experiences homelessness, that these Federally Qualified Centers will be able to do the outreach necessary to help them schedule appointments and get vaccinated.

And to the second one: Yes, you know, FEMA has already been providing requested support to community health centers with personnel and vaccinators and others.  And so we stand ready as necessary to work with the Federally Qualified Health Centers, of course as well as state and local, to make sure that their patient populations are getting vaccinated. 

Q    And if I could ask one other question; it’s about the East Oakland and East L.A. vaccination centers.  I wonder if you could talk a bit more about how that’s going there.  Also, what, kind of, made them a good — good places to launch those vaccination centers?  And are there other cities that might be next, based on that same criteria? 

MR. ZIENTS:  Dr. Nunez-Smith, do you want to handle that, or would you prefer me to?

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH:  Absolutely, I can start.

MR. ZIENTS:  Please.

DR. NUNEZ-SMITH:  You know, the process — and I think it’s going very well in terms of working closely with states and locals to identify where CVCs are placed, and certainly taking social vulnerability into account and being very coordinated in that response. 

So, you know, days are early yet, but we are very optimistic and encouraged by the partnership and, really, the interest from states and locals to work together and so closely with FEMA to launch additional ones.  So expect more announcements to be forthcoming.

MR. ZIENTS:  I think one thing I’d add there is: It’s an interesting hub-and-spoke model, where these centers are located near underserved, hardest-hit communities, but we also are using mobile units in each of those centers to go directly to the communities. 

So I think this hub-and-spoke model might also be a best practice for other centers across the country to ensure that we’re reaching the hardest-hit communities. 

Q    Thank you so much. 

MODERATOR:  Great.  And last question will go to Sheryl Stolberg at the New York Times. 

Q    Hi, thank you for that.  Two questions.  First, on the 5 percent increase, is that expected?  Was that just as a result of expected supply increasing? 

And separately, there’s a lot of confusion among the public about signing up for vaccines.  And I’m wondering, is this pharmacy program going to have its own individual sign-up?  Will people have to, you know, try to get on some website to sign up through their pharmacy, or will they still be going through their county health departments?  How is that going to work to try to alleviate some of the confusion among the public?

MR. ZIENTS:  Ok, well, thank you for both questions.  The increase is 5 percent this week over last week, but it’s 28 percent across the last three weeks.  And I think it’s the manufacturers doing a good job, and the President and the team doing all we can to support that manufacturing process, including — I think last week we talked about a DPA action that will help Pfizer get additional equipment fast so that they can continue to ramp up their production along the lines of what we talked about. 

So we’re doing everything we can to support the manufacturers to produce as much as they can.   And then we’ve talked about the efficiency and effectiveness of the distribution network now — no stockpile; a rolling inventory system — that enables us to deliver to the states first and second doses in a very efficient way.

On the pharmacy websites: Websites across states, as you know, vary quite a bit.  Some have very strong websites, some are not where they need to be.  I think that the integration of the pharmacy websites into the state websites is an important step to take.  And we as a federal government are going to do what we can to support the efforts for states to get better websites and also think through how we can contribute to a more coherent experience for users so that it can navigate and get appointments in an efficient way.  More to come on that topic.

Before we close, I also want to announce that as part of our national strategy this month, the CDC will convene a national forum on COVID vaccines.  The forum will bring together practitioners from national, state, tribal, local, and territorial levels who are engaged in vaccinating communities across the nation.  The forum will support our goals of implementing safe, effective, and comprehensive vaccine implementation strategies to protect those most at risk, and advance health equity, as part of our efforts to ensure all those in the frontlines involved in vaccinating their communities have the information and the resources they need.

Each day, we’re making progress in our effort to put this pandemic behind us, we’re giving Americans the facts they need, and we’re working to ensure our response is fair and equitable.  And we won’t stop until the job is done. 

And I want to reiterate that Congress needs to do its part as well.  We need Congress to quickly pass the American Rescue Plan to provide the funding we need to continue to scale up our vaccination program and to deliver the resources that state and local leaders need to protect their communities and fight the pandemic.

Thank you for joining us today.  Really appreciate it.  Thank you.

                                   END                      12:34 P.M. EST

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