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Rollout of the new COVID vaccine has been hampered by distribution problems


The rollout of the new COVID vaccine is facing some speed bumps.


When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the next round of COVID-19 boosters earlier this month, doses were supposed to be available that day at pharmacies. Two weeks later, consumers are reporting problems.

MARTIN: NPR's Yuki Noguchi is with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning.


MARTIN: So what are the challenges this time?

NOGUCHI: Well, one's going to sound familiar - a lack of supply. It's just like three years ago when vaccines first came out, you know, except this time, of course, approval was anticipated and demand isn't as high as back then. But some stores just don't have doses yet.

And Jen Kates ran into this. She's an executive at Kaiser Family Foundation, as well as a consumer looking to get vaccinated at her pharmacy this week. Her appointment got canceled, and she tried to go in anyway.

JEN KATES: The very nice pharmacist said, yeah, we just don't have the supply. We're not getting enough in, and we're still letting people schedule appointments.

MARTIN: So you might get an appointment but not get a shot. Why is that happening? So why are stores like hers not getting the shots?

NOGUCHI: There's no great explanation. It's, you know, not true across the board because some stores have stock and some don't. One difference this time is that pharmacies had to buy vaccine from their suppliers - you know, wholesalers - and they're no longer getting these doses for free from the federal government. So perhaps there are some hiccups in that adjustment. But either way, manufacturers say they've made plenty of doses, so it's likely to clear up in a matter of weeks. The other big category of problem, though, is insurance.

MARTIN: OK. So tell me about that. What's the roadblock there 'cause I thought that insurers were supposed to cover COVID-19 vaccine costs?

NOGUCHI: And you're right. And that is actually the biggest change from every other round of COVID vaccines that we've seen. This is the first time insurers, and not the government, are supposed to be covering the cost of these vaccines because they are preventative medicine. So whether you have private insurance, like through a job, or you have government-sponsored insurance, like Medicare, it should be free to you without copays or charges. But Kates at KFF says insurers seem to have missed that memo.

KATES: What my colleague ran into was a plan saying, yeah, we don't have it, and we're not going to cover you out of network, which is actually against federal law and regulations.

NOGUCHI: And so insurance snags like this or other snags like that are - you know, with this new COVID vaccine is happening about 20% of the time or more, according to John Beckner. And his group is the National Community Pharmacists Association, and it represents independent drugstores. Beckner says, basically, insurance systems haven't updated their systems to reflect the new rules, and it's causing pharmacies headaches, too. You know, the systems sometimes don't reimburse pharmacies for the cost of the vaccines because the federal government used to supply them for free.

JOHN BECKNER: Pharmacy is on the hook for that money until it becomes rectified.

NOGUCHI: And I asked the American (ph) Health Insurance Plans about some of these reported challenges, and they responded in a statement saying they are covering the new COVID vaccine, and they say they're working with pharmacies and government and others to ensure that consumers don't face any costs.

MARTIN: Yuki, I have to tell you, I have faced this myself. I tried to get the COVID vaccine and have been unable to do so.

NOGUCHI: Well, they would say hang in there.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That's NPR's Yuki Noguchi. Yuki, thank you so much.

NOGUCHI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.