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States rush to administer COVID-19 vaccine doses before they expire

Hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses have been saved from the trash after U.S. regulators extended their expiration date for a second time — part of a nationwide effort to salvage expiring shots to battle the nation’s summer surge in infections.

The Food and Drug Administration sent a letter to shot maker Johnson & Johnson on Wednesday declaring that the doses remain safe and effective for at least six months when properly stored. The FDA’s move gives the shots an extra six weeks, as public officials press more Americans to get inoculated.

Similar efforts are taking place in multiple states as public health officials try to ensure that soon-to-expire shots are put into arms before they must be discarded.

Federal health officials have shipped an additional 8 million doses of the J&J shot to states that have not yet been used, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine-tracking website. 

Some states have set up marketplaces for shot providers or dedicated staff to redistribute about-to-expire vaccines to places that need them. Such efforts are underway in New Jersey, Washington and Wisconsin.

In Iowa and North Dakota, officials say they send vaccines approaching expiration to locations where they are most likely to be used.

“We have a lot of interest from the public in receiving J&J, so if we find doses that may go unused, we will transfer them to providers in need,” said Molly Howell, North Dakota’s immunization director.

The J&J vaccine is not the only one facing expiration. States also report that many Pfizer and Moderna doses are approaching expiration, which is set at six months from the manufacturing date. In Louisiana, for example, about 100,000 Pfizer doses are set to expire in about a week.

Dr. Clarence Lam, interim executive medical director of occupational health services at Johns Hopkins University, was encouraged by the extension for the J&J shots.

“We hate to see this supply go to waste, especially when there are areas of the world where this is needed,” Lam said. “But now I think we’ll be able to better utilize the supply that’s already been distributed here in the U.S.”

The push comes amid a surge in infections in the U.S. that is largely due to the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which has spread rapidly, particularly among unvaccinated people. Inoculation rates have climbed only slightly after a steep fall from their April peak.

“It’s a critically important time — we have children headed back to school in just a few weeks’ time,” said Juliann Van Liew, director of the public health department in Wyandotte County, Kansas.

President Biden is trying to coax and incentivize more Americans to get the jab. He said Thursday he’s requiring federal workers to either be vaccinated or submit to regular testing, and urged states with leftover American Rescue Plan funds to give newly vaccinated residents $100. 

“Every day, more businesses are implementing their own vaccine mandates,” Mr. Biden said. “The Justice Department has made it clear that it is legal to require COVID-19 vaccines. We all want our lives to get back to normal, and fully vaccinated workplaces, will, will make that happen more quickly and more successfully. We all know that in our gut. With incentives and mandates, we can make a huge difference and save a lot of lives.” 

The president called the vaccine an “American blessing” and said world leaders call him nearly every day to ask for vaccine doses, while millions of Americans pass up the lifesaving drug.

“It’s such a shame to squander that blessing,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control’s new recommendation that fully vaccinated people in areas of the country with high or substantial spread wear masks is reigniting local regulations. In Washington, D.C., all residents, including fully vaccinated ones, will need to wear masks in public indoor settings as of 5 a.m. Saturday. 

“I know D.C. residents have been very closely following the public health guidelines and they will embrace this,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Thursday. 

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