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UPDATE 1-White House plans to send vaccine doses to retail pharmacies

(Adds additional commentary from White House)

WASHINGTON, Feb 2 (Reuters) - The White House will launch a new program shipping coronavirus vaccines directly to retail pharmacies starting next week in an effort to increase Americans’ access to shots, a top aide said on Tuesday.

President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 response coordinator, Jeff Zients, said the program will launch on Feb 11 and make 1 million doses available to 6,500 stores. As supply grows, the program could expand to as many as 40,000 stores, he said.

Biden said last month that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been a “dismal failure” so far and vowed to boost the speed at which shots are given to Americans, with a focus on ensuring equitable access regardless of geography, race, or ethnicity.

The federal government will distribute a million vaccine doses to the 6,500 stores next week, Zients said, adding that the amount will grow over time.

That is in addition to 10.5 million doses that the federal government plans to ship weekly to states and territories for the next three weeks, he added.

“This will provide more sites for people to get vaccinated in their communities,” Zients said, adding that supply constraints will limit the program in its early days.

The initial pharmacy locations were selected to improve access to vaccines in hard to reach areas and among socially vulnerable communities, Zients said.

CVS Health Corp said in a news release that its pharmacies will be participating in the program.

Zients also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will reimburse states for some COVID-related costs they had taken on since the pandemic began last January, such as for personal protective equipment and deployment of the national guard.

He said Congress does not need to approve funds for FEMA to do this and that the total payments to states will be between $3 billion and $5 billion.

Zients added that the federal government has acquired supplies of equipment healthcare providers need to get six doses from each vial of Pfizer Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine rather than five.

The Biden administration has said it is willing to use emergency wartime powers if necessary to secure the specialized low dead space syringes and other supplies needed to eliminate vaccine waste and improve administration efficiency.

The major winter storm that hit the east coast of the United States this week has not disrupted vaccine deliveries but has forced some vaccine administration sites to shut down or reduce operating hours, Zients said. (Reporting by Carl O’Donnell, Susan Heavey and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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