The Memo: High stakes for Trump in vaccine rollout
President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus was one of the primary reasons why he lost his bid for reelection. But he and his allies are hoping that the rollout of a vaccine in the waning days of his administration will offer a measure of redemption.
Public health experts are not so sure, however. They warn that the logistical challenges involved in getting the vaccine administered are formidable — and they say that Trump himself has contributed to an atmosphere of distrust that further complicates the process.
Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown Law professor who specializes in public health, said that the vaccination process is going to be “extraordinarily challenging,” adding “We have logistical challenges and infrastructural challenges, and then we also have challenges of distrust.”
The latter challenges in particular are “absolutely related” to the Trump administration’s rhetoric and actions up to this point, Gostin said.
The news of the vaccine, which was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration on Friday, is the brightest spot yet in the battle against COVID-19. Cable news networks on Monday covered every step in the initial process, including the first injections being administered.
But it will be several more months before American life can return to anything approaching normal. In an MSNBC interview Monday, Anthony Fauci suggested it would be late March or early April before people without high-risk factors or other exceptional circumstances could get vaccinated.
On Monday, the death toll from the pandemic in the United States surpassed 300,000. New cases of infection have been rising at alarming rates for the past two months, and are currently running at more than 200,000 per day nationwide.
If there are significant problems in the vaccine’s initial rollout, they will further copper-fasten public perception that Trump was simply not up to the greatest challenge of his presidency.
Trump is already judged as failing in that respect by most Americans. In a Fox News poll released late last week, 55 percent of registered voters disapproved of his response to the pandemic while only 44 percent approved.
But the arrival of the vaccine gives Trump some light, even with only five weeks of his presidency remaining.
“Vaccines are shipped and on their way, FIVE YEARS AHEAD OF SCHEDULE,” he tweeted on Sunday afternoon. “Get well USA. Get well WORLD. We love you all!”
His supporters have pushed hard to ensure Trump gets political credit.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted on Monday afternoon that the first deliveries of the vaccine were “a major accomplishment” from Trump.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) tweeted that such a relatively quick vaccine “wouldn’t have been possible w/o #OperationWarpSpeed & the leadership of @RealDonaldTrump.”
The president’s elder daughter, Ivanka Trump, shared video of trucks beginning the vaccine delivery process, noting that it was “the biggest vaccination effort in American history.”
Operation Warp Speed, the search for a vaccine funded to the tune of $10 billion, has been a clear success in terms of its overall aim. But it has had its controversies too, including the news that recently emerged that the Trump administration had turned down the opportunity to secure more doses of the Pfizer vaccine than the 100 million initially promised.
Health experts also worry that the Trump administration is making a late start to its efforts to promote the vaccine to the public at large. The Department of Health and Human Services is now beginning a $250 million campaign aimed at “building vaccine confidence.”
But that campaign will be built on a landscape that also features widespread politicization of basic measures such as wearing masks. Trump himself has often seemed ambivalent about mask-wearing, has promoted ill-founded treatments like hydroxychloroquine and, most infamously of all, implied that the injection of disinfectant into the human body could in some way counteract COVID-19.
Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a practicing physician, asserted that the Trump administration has “never thought about the behavioral component. Why do people get a vaccine and why don’t they? Why does the ‘disinformation’ exist?”
She noted that there is also a broader issue of heightened distrust among Black, Latino and other communities of color. While Trump cannot be held wholly responsible for that — American medical history includes horrors like the Tuskegee experiment — the generally unfavorable view of him among nonwhite Americans doesn’t help at a moment like this.
Patel was also very skeptical that the generally negative view of Trump’s handling of the pandemic could be substantially changed even if the early weeks of the vaccine rollout go well.
“I think it is baked in. I think that is done — and we are not going to see the benefits of this for a long time. We are still going to see millions more cases.”
Even some Republicans acknowledge that Trump’s handling of COVID-19 has been flawed.
GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak argued that Trump had made the right decisions most of the time but admitted that his rhetoric, including his propensity to verbally attack Democratic governors, had run against a desire for unity during a national crisis.
Mackowiak argued, however, that the vaccine could yet change that.
A successful launch to the vaccination process, he insisted, “could counteract the sense that the federal government’s response to COVID was inadequate.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.