Disjointed vaccine distribution poses early test for Biden
States, counties and cities say they are running out of coronavirus vaccines, leading to canceled or postponed appointments for thousands of people even as the country tries to ramp up the pace of vaccinations.
Health officials are desperate for clarity from the federal government on vaccine shipments, saying they need accurate numbers for planning weeks in advance.
Instead, the figures have been coming in only a week at a time and have not been consistent.
The Biden administration has pledged to work with states to improve communication but for now is scrambling to figure out just how much vaccine is available.
“Allocation and supply are critical areas that we did not unfortunately have much visibility into,” Jeff Zients, President Biden’s COVID-19 coordinator, told reporters.
“We will work to provide projections on supply. We hear over and over from governors and local leaders that they just don’t know what supply is coming and can’t plan. We will absolutely, across the next few days, as we get our arms around what’s going on, make sure that we are communicating with states and localities so they can prepare effectively,” Zients added.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states have administered only 47 percent of the nearly 40 million doses delivered. But experts say those figures don’t paint a complete picture, and they doesn’t necessarily mean vaccines are sitting around unused.
“I know there’s a perception the vaccine hasn’t gone out quickly enough,” but that isn’t the case, said Mississippi State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs.
Speaking on a podcast with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Dobbs said Mississippi is going to run out of doses shortly.
“Most of the doses we’ve given to health systems to distribute, and they’re really starting to crank it out. I think we’re going to run out of vaccine soon, and there are going to be people who say, ‘It’s my turn now. Why can’t I step up to the table?'” Dobbs said.
Health experts and federal officials have said for months that initial COVID-19 vaccines were going to be in short supply.
In the first two weeks after the vaccines gained emergency authorization, states were having a hard time administering them quickly enough. Now, demand is higher, states have streamlined their administration systems and the supply can’t keep up.
“States made adjustments. They’re opening up [eligibility] to more people. But, you know, their allocation is not increasing, so that’s why you’re seeing states crying out for more doses,” said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers.
The number of vaccine doses being shipped has not changed much since late December. In the final days of the Trump administration, though, officials recommended states open eligibility to anyone over the age of 65 as well as people under 65 with a preexisting condition.
Those moves put even more pressure on states’ already limited supplies.
States also thought they would be getting double the number of new doses this week after Trump health officials said they would no longer hold back booster shots.
But that turned out not to be the case, as the government no longer had a stockpile.
Meanwhile, demand has far outstripped supply in some areas. This week, New York City had to reschedule 23,000 appointments after exhausting the city’s supply for first doses.
Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) sent a letter to the Biden administration on Friday asking for the flexibility to use its supply of second doses to “bridge the gap to a time of increased production” and maximize the number of first doses administered.
In San Francisco, city officials were worried about exhausting their supply but got a last-minute reprieve when the state allowed them to resume using a batch of Moderna vaccines that had been taken out of use for possible safety issues.
Still, health officials say they need more information from the federal government.
“The unpredictable and erratic flow of vaccine into San Francisco makes it impossible for the city’s health care providers or [Department of Public Health] to plan appropriately,” the city’s COVID Command Center said in a statement to The Hill.
The Biden administration has been praised for being more open about the challenges in combating the coronavirus, but officials have not spelled out how they can increase vaccine supply.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that engagement with states and local officials will be a priority but did not give any examples of guidance going forward.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently said the National Governors Association will be doing weekly meetings with Zients. They are still working out the scheduling.