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Health and Human Services closed standalone vaccine office, merged it amid restructuring

The claim: The U.S. government’s  vaccine safety office was closed.

The deadly spread of COVID-19 has triggered a blame game on social media amid the election season.

On Oct. 25, the group Occupy Democrats claimed on Facebook that the Trump administration in 2019 “quietly closed a vaccine safety office, hindering efforts to trace the long-term safety of a COVID vaccine. This is a shocking disregard for the health and wellbeing of Americans. If at this stage, you still think Trump cares about you, you’re not smart enough to vote.”

More: Fact check: Neither Biden nor Trump is calling for mandated COVID-19 vaccines

Origin of the vaccine office claim

The claim stems from reorganization within the Department of Health and Human Services that affected the National Vaccine Program Office.

In March 2019, less than a year before the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., HHS Secretary Alex Azar spelled out the changes in a letter to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is ranking member on the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Service, and Education.

As part of a broader reorganization of the department, Azar said, the National Vaccine Program Office was shut down as a separate entity in an effort to “improve the integrity and quality” of programs within the office of the Assistant Secretary for Health “and increase operational efficiencies by eliminating program redundancies and decreasing program costs.”

In this July 27, 2020, file photo, Nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y.
In this July 27, 2020, file photo, Nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y.

He said the National Vaccine Program Office would be merged with the Office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy (OHAIDP) to form the Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy (OIDP). 

“This effort will provide cross-cutting, science-based, health-promoting advice and recommendations to the ASH on issues pertaining to blood and tissue safety and availability; HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis and other infectious diseases; and vaccines and immunization.”

More: Fact check: Trump’s past flu vaccinations not linked to increased COVID-19 risk

He said the changes were proposed by a ” working group of career staff” and would allow for the “more efficient management” of multiple committees currently managed separately by vaccine and HIV/AIDS offices.

In effect, the vaccine office was merged into one focused on infectious diseases.

The effect of the restructuring

The New York Times, quoting experts, said the elimination of the office left the long-term safety effort for coronavirus vaccines fragmented among federal agencies, with no central leadership.

While the office was ostensibly folded into another, it no longer really functions as it did before, said Daniel Salmon. He was director of vaccine safety at National Vaccine Program Office from 2007-12. He now directs the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In part, people with the necessary training and background are no longer on staff.

“When you remove all the technical experience, you don’t have the capacity to make

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