NEW YORK, Jan 6 (Reuters) - The United States plans to start distributing COVID-19 vaccines through pharmacies around the country earlier than expected this week as states have struggled to use the supply they have been allocated, top health officials said on Wednesday.
The partnership with 19 pharmacy chains will eventually let the Operation Warp Speed vaccination program deliver to as many as 40,000 locations around the country, Warp Speed officials said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Pharmacies could provide a more efficient platform for distributing the vaccines than hospitals, they said.
As of Tuesday morning, more than 70 percent of the more than 17 million vaccine doses that have been delivered around the country since December were still sitting in freezers, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC).
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also said at the news conference that states should not let recommendations to prioritize certain groups like health care workers slow the pace of vaccinations.
He said states should not keep vaccines sitting in freezers too long for distribution to healthcare workers and has encouraged governors to skirt CDC recommendations if it can speed inoculation.
"Those are simply recommendations, and they should never stand in the way of getting shots in arms," Azar said.
If states are struggling to distribute the vaccine, "then by all means you want to be opening up to people 70 and over or 65 and over," he said.
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