By Carl O'Donnell and Manas Mishra
(Reuters) - The U.S. government will begin shipping COVID-19 vaccines directly to community health centers next week in an effort to speed vaccinations and ensure doses are reaching vulnerable people, U.S. health officials said on Tuesday.
The government will send doses to 250 centers nationwide selected based on their proximity to vulnerable groups, such as homeless people and those with limited proficiency in English, they said. Typically, vaccine doses would go to state governments for distribution to health centers.
Eventually the effort will expand to more than 1,300 community health centers.
The federal government will initially distribute 1 million vaccine doses to the health centers and increase from there, they added.
The program is part of a broader push by the Biden administration to increase access to COVID-19 shots with the goal of administering 100 million doses in Biden’s first 100 days in office. Biden has also made it a priority to ensure that vaccines are distributed equitably with respect to race, ethnicity and economic status.
The U.S. government is already ahead of pace to meet its goal of 100 million shots in 100 days, which only required it to modestly outpace the previous administration's distribution levels. Biden said in January he may aim for 150 million shots in that time, but his press secretary later said 100 million was still the official target.
The White House this week began coordinating shipments of vaccines directly to 6,500 pharmacies with the goal of reaching about 40,000.
“We are providing tools to communities around the country to do this work and look forward to partnering with them to ensure equity,” said Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, on a press call.
The United States has boosted vaccine distribution from 8.6 million doses to 11 million doses weekly since Biden came into office three weeks ago, said Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator.
The White House has said it plans to continue boosting the number of doses it distributes and will use the federal government’s emergency powers under the Defense Production Act, to increase production of vaccines. Johnson & Johnson is expected to receive authorization for its experimental COVID vaccine as soon as this month which would further increase vaccine supplies.
(Reporting by Carl O'Donnell; Editing by Chris Reese and Cynthia Osterman)