Frustration builds over slow pace of vaccine rollout
More than 17 million doses of various COVID-19 vaccines have been shipped to all 50 states and the U.S. territories, enough to inoculate about 5 percent of the population against the deadly virus that has reshaped American life for almost a year.
But less than 30 percent of those shots have been used so far, leaving millions of doses in storage instead of in people’s arms.
While the distribution of the vaccine from drug companies to states and hospitals appears to have run smoothly so far, administering those doses to people has proved more sluggish and time consuming.
Nancy Messonier, who heads the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) immunization center, said in a live-streamed interview Tuesday she isn’t surprised by the early numbers, pointing to the newness of a mass vaccination program.
“It’s the early stages of a really complicated task but a task that we’re up for,” she said. “We have to remember that these are new vaccines … the distribution of the vaccine, the storage and handling, and the administration of these vaccines are slightly complicated.”
She also blamed the slow rollout of the vaccines on the holiday season and surges of cases across the country that are overwhelming hospitals and health departments.
“Now that health departments and hospitals, and the long-term care facilities have a little bit of experience with these vaccines, I really expect the pace of administration to go up pretty massively in the next couple weeks.”
The Trump administration had hoped to have 20 million people receive their first doses of the vaccine by the end of the year but fell far short of that goal.
Increasing the pace of vaccinations took on a new sense of urgency after a more contagious variant of COVID-19 was detected within the U.S. after becoming the dominant strain in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are expected to increase even more in the coming weeks following holiday gatherings.
Frustrated by the slow pace of vaccination, governors are upping the pressure on hospitals and health departments and questioning the priority guidelines adopted by the CDC for who should receive the first doses of the vaccines.
Most states have prioritized health workers and residents of long-term care facilities for the first limited doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
But some worry those guidelines are too rigid and are holding back efforts to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible to hasten the end of the pandemic.
In New York, for example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) threatened to penalize providers who vaccinate people outside of the current priority groups, receiving pushback from Mayor Bill de Blasio (D).
“If you’ve got a group of people you’re authorized to give a vaccine to but a lot of them are not ready to do it and say no, you need to move on to the next group as quickly as possible,” de Blasio said during a press conference Tuesday.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said health workers would have until Jan. 15 to get vaccinated “or go to the back of the line.”
“We are frustrated and we are determined to eliminate the bottlenecks that are slowing this down,” he said at a press conference Tuesday.
Other governors have conceded the rollout is too slow and something needs to change.
“Let me be clear: we must vaccinate Oregonians as quickly as possible. Oregon families, schools, and businesses are counting on rapid vaccine distribution. We all are,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) said in a statement Tuesday.
Other public health experts and lawmakers have indicated it might be a demand issue within the current priority groups — mostly health workers and nursing home residents — and vaccinations should be opened up to other people.
“The problem really is that we need to continue to do a better job of matching up supply and demand at the local level,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Tuesday on NBC News.
“Some states are doing a really good job: You have red states like North Dakota and South Dakota, but blue places like D.C. and Connecticut who have distributed 75-plus percent of their vaccines. But you have some states that still haven’t distributed more than 25 percent of their vaccine. So we need to make sure we’re getting the supply to where the demand is.”
Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Michigan have the slowest vaccination rates right now, according to data released by the CDC on Tuesday.
Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist and professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the fact that only one-third of available vaccines have been administered so far is “not so great.”
“It does take a few days, at least to get vaccine from the delivery into someone’s arm so it’s never going to be 100 percent of the doses administered,” he said.
“Each state has its list of ordering for who should get the vaccine, and my suggestion would be to move relatively quickly through that list. Not that people at the top of the list would be unable to get it but that they would share their priority with a growing number of people over time. In order to make sure that it’s not a demand problem.”
Messonier said she hopes the CDC’s guidelines for who should be prioritized aren’t holding the program back.
“I really hope that articulating these, these phases as being sort of an approach isn’t leaving unnecessary barriers as folks try to implement this,” Messonier said.
“I think every day we should be trying to figure out how the vaccine can be best used. And you know if there’s not enough people in one location in one category, and there’s still vaccine, we should start moving down that list and making sure that those vaccines are well used.”
Making matters more difficult is the fact that Congress only very recently appropriated billions of dollars in funding for vaccine distribution and administration, money that state officials said should have been passed several months ago.
State and local health departments have complained that they don’t have enough funding to launch a mass vaccination campaign of this scale.
“It really highlights the complexity of what is the largest mass vaccination campaign our nation has ever attempted,” said Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs for the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “And we’re doing so without having months of real buildup and planning to put us on stronger footing, or with the funds to really enhance our system in advance.”