The calendar will flip over into 2021 with the U.S. well short of its goal of vaccinating 20 million Americans against the coronavirus.
With the pandemic still raging, at least 2.6 million have received the first of two Covid shots while over 12.4 million doses have been delivered to the states, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s most recent figures from Wednesday morning. At that rate, it could take years to inoculate 80 percent of the population — the figure public health experts generally say is necessary to achieve herd immunity against the virus.
The Trump administration says the figures don’t reflect the reality on the ground due to a significant lag in reporting. But regardless who’s right, the pace underscores the enormous challenges awaiting the incoming Biden administration after scientists working at breakneck speed delivered two FDA-backed vaccines less than a year after the genetic sequence of the virus was released.
President-elect Joe Biden this week criticized the Trump administration for “falling behind” on efforts to vaccinate Americans against the coronavirus and pledged more federal involvement under his watch. Amid concerns about the pace of the vaccine rollout, President Donald Trump said the onus is on states to administer inoculations faster.
“The Federal Government has distributed the vaccines to the states,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “Now it is up to the states to administer.”
Critics say Trump’s team put too much responsibility for vaccinations on resource-strapped state health departments still grappling with the pandemic, while not pressing Congress for aid sooner. Lawmakers eventually approved nearly $9 billion for vaccine distribution in their year-end relief package, but states say it will take weeks to do things like set up mass vaccination sites and launch public education campaigns.
“They should have done that early. And they should have gotten that money out to the states,” said Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “And then they should have worked with states to set up all of these places, so that by the time the vaccines arrived, we had all the sites located for where the vaccinations were going to happen.”
The administration made rosy assessments about what’s sure to become the biggest immunization effort in U.S. history, beginning with HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s October assertion that the country by year’s end could have up to 100 million doses, or enough for 50 million people to be vaccinated with a two-shot regimen. That target was gradually scaled back to having 40 million doses, enough for 20 million people to get vaccinated – a benchmark that federal officials repeatedly cited over the last few months.
As for shots administered so far, “we are certainly not at the numbers that we wanted to be at the end of December,” Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease expert said on CNN Tuesday. On Wednesday, federal health officials expressed confidence that the pace of vaccinations will pick up as soon as next week.
“We’re launching a vaccine campaign in the midst of a pandemic surge, after a year that’s drained and strained health care providers and public health departments, and we’re launching a vaccine campaign during the winter holidays,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on a press call.
Operation Warp Speed, the government’s vaccine accelerator, says it plans to allocate 20 million shots by the end of the year to states, though the last 5 million won’t actually be delivered until the first week in January. The government is holding another 20 million doses in reserve so people can receive their second shots weeks later.
Moncef Slaoui, the head of OWS, has defended the 20 million goal, saying the government has been true to its word.
“The commitment that we can make is to make vaccine doses available … and I think that commitment is met,” Slaoui said last week, adding vaccinations were happening “slower than we thought it would be.”
State officials say it takes time to ramp up any vaccination effort, let alone the enormous Covid undertaking. States and hospitals are hammering out who gets the shots first. The vaccine made by Pfizer must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures. And local officials say they are figuring out how to safely conduct a mass vaccination effort while the virus is still circulating widely.
“I do think also just scaling up these clinics in various settings, it takes some time to work out the kinks. And you want to be careful, because you have to do all of this in a time of social distancing,” said Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Some officials familiar with state plans believe the pace of vaccinations will rise in the coming weeks.
“I think we’re in a really good place,” said Claire Hannan, the executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers. “The clinics, the administration, the uptake will just continue to grow as we do it more, as people are more comfortable with the vaccine.”
She also noted that states have set aside doses for long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, which takes time to administer under a new federal pharmacy partnership – and that may contribute to the lag in administered vaccines.
The Trump administration says it’s helped states craft their vaccination plans since September, provides jurisdictions with the necessary supplies and has sent tens of millions of dollars to states. In a statement, Operation Warp Speed spokesperson Michael Pratt wrote that the doses are being sent to states as “quickly as they are available.”
“The rapid availability and distribution of so many doses – with 20 million first doses allocated for distribution just 18 days after the first vaccine was granted emergency use authorization – is a testament to the success of Operation Warp Speed,” he wrote.
Sarah Owermohle contributed to this report.