Jan. 12 (UPI) -- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services officials Tuesday expanded COVID-19 vaccine availability during the initial phase of distribution to include people age 65 years and older.
The changes also give priority to those with underlying health conditions that place them at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 infection, officials said.
People with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and respiratory illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, are believed to be at increased risk for severe COVID-19.
"With the case counts we're facing now, there's no time to waste," HHS secretary Alex Azar said during a press briefing Tuesday.
"It's time to move on to the next phase, [and] this next phase reflects the urgency of the situation we face," he said.
Previously, "phase 1A" of the vaccination recommendations issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December called for healthcare workers and adults age 75 years and older, particularly those residing in nursing homes, to be given priority.
However, through Tuesday, just 9 million of the 25 million vaccine doses distributed nationally had been administered to these groups, based on agency estimates.
Azar blamed the shortfall, at least in part, on "heavy-handed policies" at the state level, where "restrictions" have "obstructed" people who want the vaccine from getting it.
Those with underlying health conditions who want the COVID-19 vaccine under the expanded eligibility recommendations will need to provide medical documentation of their health problems and increased risk, officials said.
In addition to expanding the recommended priority population, HHS will also be releasing the nation's "entire supply" of vaccine for use as first or second doses.
As part of Operation Warp Speed, the government's vaccine development program, U.S. health officials are monitoring vaccine production at the manufacturer level and are confident that sufficient doses will be available.
Both vaccines approved for use in the United States, manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, require two doses for optimum protection. The government had been holding back half of the available doses in an effort to make sure recipients could receive their second dose.
Two additional vaccines, from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, could be approved for use by the end of February and March, respectively, officials said.
Federal officials said that HHS and CDC will be assisting states in opening new vaccination facilities to expand availability and make it easier for people to get the shot.
In the coming weeks, shots should be available at hospitals, private pharmacies, community health centers and, if needed, "mass vaccination centers," Azar said.
As of Tuesday, 700,000 doses of the vaccines are being administered daily across the country. Health officials hope to get to 1 million doses per day within seven to 10 days.
Several states, including Florida, already have opted to include adults age 65 years and older in their initial vaccine distribution phase.
Still, most states have encountered challenges during the first phase of the vaccine rollout, with supplies lacking in some parts of the country.
In addition, some people eligible to receive the shot in phase 1A -- healthcare workers, those over age 75 and essential workers, such as firefighters and police officers -- have refused it due to fears over long-term side effects.
To date, studies of the two vaccines have reported few side effects, although a few people have reported anaphylaxis after receiving the vaccine.
President-elect Joseph Biden has said his administration will release all available doses of the vaccine to states by the end of January.