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WASHINGTON -- The government outlined a sweeping plan Wednesday to make vaccines for COVID-19 available for free to all Americans, assuming a safe and effective shot is developed, even as top health officials faced questions about political interference with virus information reaching the public.

In a report to Congress and an accompanying "playbook" for states and localities, federal health agencies and the Defense Department sketched out complex plans for a vaccination campaign to begin gradually in January or even late this year, eventually ramping up to reach any American who wants a shot.

The Pentagon would be involved with the distribution of vaccines, but civilian health workers would be the ones giving shots.

The whole enterprise faces remaining skepticism. Only about half of Americans said they'd get vaccinated in an Associated Press-NORC poll taken in May. Since then, questions have only mounted about whether the government is trying to rush treatments and vaccines to help President Donald Trump's reelection chances.

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On Wednesday, the Health and Human Services Department announced that political appointee Michael Caputo would take a leave of absence. The news followed revelations that the senior communications official had tried to gain editorial control over scientific publications on COVID-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he contended were hurting the Trump administration.

The director of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, responding Wednesday before Senate lawmakers, rejected questions over whether the government's timeline for states to be ready for a vaccine by Nov. 1 was politically motivated.

Redfield told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the "scientific integrity" of his agency's output "has not been compromised and it will not be compromised under my watch."

He said he was "deeply saddened" by Caputo's accusations that CDC staff were working as a "resistance unit" against the administration.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the committee's top Democrat, said political interference had damaged public trust in the government's health information .

"The Trump administration needs to leave the science to the scientists immediately," Murray said.

Although Trump asserted Tuesday that a vaccine could be three to four weeks away, Redfield, made clear to Congress that any version available this year would be in "very limited supply." The shot wouldn't be broadly available to most of the U.S. population until the summer of 2021, he estimated.

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Trump's press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, quickly repeated the president's version at the White House: "We do believe that it will be widely available by the end of the year."

As for the planned vaccine campaign, the CDC playbook for states says it is "much larger in scope and complexity than seasonal influenza or other previous outbreak-related vaccination responses." Redfield said that his agency will be working with state health officials to execute the vaccination plan in coming days.

Among the highlights of the plan:

- For most vaccines, people will need two doses, 21 to 28 days apart. Double-dose vaccines will have to come from the same drugmaker. There could be several vaccines from different manufacturers approved and available.

- Vaccination of the U.S. population won't be a sprint but a marathon. Initially there may be a limited supply of vaccines, and the focus will be on protecting health workers, other essential employees, and people in vulnerable groups. "Early in (the) COVID-19 vaccination program there may be a limited supply of vaccine and vaccine efforts may focus on those critical to the response, providing direct care and maintaining societal functions, as well as those at highest risk for developing severe illness," Redfield said. A second and third phase would expand vaccination to the entire population.

- The vaccine itself will be free of charge, thanks to billions of dollars in taxpayer funding approved by Congress and allocated by the Trump administration. The goal is that patients won't be separately charged for administration of their shots, and officials say they are working to ensure that's the case for all Medicare recipients and uninsured people as well those covered by insurance at their jobs.

- States and local communities will need to devise precise plans for receiving and locally distributing vaccines, some of which will require special handling such as refrigeration or freezing. States and cities have a month to submit plans.

- A massive information technology effort will be needed to track who is getting which vaccines and when, and the key challenge involves getting multiple public and private databases to link with each other.

Some of the broad components of the federal plan have already been discussed, but Wednesday's reports attempt to put the key details into a comprehensive framework. Distribution is under the umbrella of Operation Warp Speed, a White House-backed initiative to have vaccines ready to ship in 24 hours from when a version is given emergency use approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Several formulations are undergoing final trials.

However, public skepticism remains. Of the Americans who said in the May AP poll that they wouldn't get vaccinated, the overwhelming majority said they were worried about safety. To effectively protect the nation from the coronavirus, experts say 70% to 90% of Americans must either be vaccinated or have their own immunity from fighting off COVID-19.

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Before the Republican National Convention in August, the FDA granted authorization for treatment of COVID-19 patients with plasma from people who have recovered, even though some government scientists were not convinced the clinical evidence was sufficiently strong.

As public confidence in health agencies has taken a beating, Trump administration officials have been forced to play defense.

"We are working closely with our state and local public health partners ... to ensure that Americans can receive the vaccine as soon as possible and vaccinate with confidence," HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement Wednesday. "Americans should know that the vaccine development process is being driven completely by science and the data."

That could be a tough sell. In the AP poll, 1 in 5 Americans said they would not get a coronavirus vaccine, and 31% said they were unsure.

"We're dealing in a world of great uncertainty," said Paul Mango, a top HHS official working on the vaccine plan.

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Lou Lamoriellos early plan for Islanders to take next step

With the 2020 free-agent signing period beginning Oct. 9, Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello has made it clear his priorities are in-house.

Having finished just two wins away from qualifying for the Stanley Cup final, the Islanders proved to have a more durable foundation than many believed when they carried a seven-game losing streak into the coronavirus shutdown that suspended the regular season in March.

Lamoriello evidently saw this playoff run as a sign of what he should do this offseason, saying during his end-of-the-season press conference that his only focus has been communicating with each and every restricted and unrestricted free agent on the roster.

“There’s room for improvement internally and if we can get better externally, we’ll certainly do that,” Lamoriello said on a Zoom call Tuesday afternoon. “But right now we’re going to focus in on keeping our team together.”

The Islanders’ top four UFAs are Andy Greene, Matt Martin, Derick Brassard and Tom Kuhnhackl, while Mathew Barzal, Devon Toews and Ryan Pulock are RFAs. Without any of those free agents signed, the Islanders have $8.9 million in cap space.

The pandemic-induced flat salary cap could threaten Lamoriello’s plan to keep this band together.

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When the GM of the year reflected on the Islanders’ longest playoff run in nearly three decades, he said the most gratifying part was the team effort. And that is why Lamoriello is looking internally.

“It wasn’t just one player, or two players, or three players, the whole roster participated in whatever success we did have in getting ourselves two away from playing in the finals,” he said. “That to me was the most satisfying, gratifying. The good feeling that each and every player had for each other when they had success, whether a player scored an overtime goal or made a big defensive play or it was a different goalie in a game and the excitement that the goalie who didn’t play had for the person who was in the net.

“Those were the things that really were gratifying, that this was really a team. This was a collection of different talents who really came together and wanted to have success as a group and put aside anything individually.”

Lamoriello said there wasn’t a finalized RFA qualifying list yet, but that there will likely be “one or two that we will not qualify.” With Barzal, Pulock and Toews the clear priorities, bubble players like Josh Ho-Sang may not be extended a qualifying offer.

Considering Lamoriello explicitly said in March that he would match a qualifying offer for the 23-year-old Barzal, adding that it wasn’t his intention to even let it get to that point, it seems the Isles are comfortable with their RFAs situation.

As far as the UFAs go, Lamoriello said he’d “love to have Andy back.” Having reunited with the veteran defenseman in February via a trade with the very team Lamoriello signed him to while he was at the helm of the Devils, it’s clear how high he is on Greene.

But with a relatively crowded blue line with the continuing emergence of Noah Dobson and other defensemen like locker-room favorite Johnny Boychuk, some tough decisions may have to be made in order to retain Greene.

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Martin proved his worth with a career-best playoff performance, but he brings a $2.5 million cap hit to the fourth line with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck. With all three combining for $9.5 million, more difficult decisions need to be made.

“Right now we’re certainly exploring each and every situation that potentially could take place,” Lamoriello said. “The last resort, if there is such a word, would be doing something that we would certainly rather not do. But I’m reasonably comfortable that we’ll be able to accomplish what we want to accomplish and have the team that we want to put on the ice once the season starts.”

Adam Pelech (wrist), Casey Cizikas (detached retina) and Tom Kuhnhackl (undisclosed) all underwent successful surgery after the conclusion of the season, Lamoriello said.

“They’re all in a rehab situation and all will be ready for the start of training camp whenever that might come,” he said. “There is ample time for them to heal.”

With Ilya Sorokin signed for 2020-21 and Semyon Varlamov carrying three more years on his contract, Lamoriello said the Isles’ “goaltending situation is pretty obvious.”

Expect Thomas Greiss to test free agency after five seasons on Long Island.

Filed under andy greene ,  derick brassard ,  lou lamoriello ,  mathew barzal ,  matt martin ,  new york islanders ,  9/29/20

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