Five things that must happen to get people vaccinated
After a brutal year fighting COVID-19, the country is seeing some glimmers of hope on the horizon.
President Biden put forward new specific dates in a prime-time address Thursday night, saying all American adults will be eligible for the vaccine by May 1 at the latest, and that the country will be closer to normal by the Fourth of July.
What will it take to hit those targets? Vaccinations are ramping up, but what it is needed to make vaccinations truly widespread? Here are five key areas to watch.
Increase vaccine supply
President Biden says the country is on track to have enough doses for every American adult by the end of May. To hit that goal, supply needs to continue to ramp up. The number of vaccine doses being sent to states each week has already more than doubled from the 8.6 million doses per week when the Biden administration began.
“The next couple of weeks of supply overall are relatively flat before supply really starts to accelerate towards the end of the month and then into April and into May,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said Friday.
While the projections show plenty of doses in the pipeline, vaccine manufacturing carries some uncertainty.
“We know that manufacturing vaccines is a complex process and things can go wrong, where large batches need to be discarded,” said William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins University. “So [May 1 is] an ambitious goal but I think it’s also a realistic goal, and I think it’s something we should strive to.”
States have long been clamoring for more doses.
“In order for wide-spread and comprehensive vaccination to work, the federal government will need to come through with increased doses and infrastructure,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) tweeted in response to Biden’s speech Thursday night.
Get shots in arms, including in hard-to-reach communities
Having enough doses is only half the battle. Those doses actually need to get into people’s arms in communities across the country.
“What we often describe as hesitancy for getting vaccinated in the Black and Latino communities is actually much more about access,” said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “There isn’t access to vaccines and when there isn’t access, that’s what’s hindering things.”
The Biden administration announced a range of steps on Thursday to try to make the vaccine more accessible.
It will send the vaccine to an additional 750 community health centers, bringing the total to 950. It will double the number of pharmacies receiving vaccines to more than 20,000. The administration has opened 20 federally-run mass vaccination centers, and announced plans to double that number.
To add more people to administer vaccinations, Biden also announced an additional 4,000 active-duty troops and opened up eligibility to be a vaccinator to groups such as dentists, paramedics and veterinarians.
Overcome vaccine hesitancy
While the current problem is there are more people who want a vaccine than there are shots available, if supply increases stay on target, that situation is likely to flip as soon as April, experts say. That means the problem will be not enough demand, instead of not enough supply.
To increase the number of people who want shots, resistance to vaccination among a significant portion of the population will need to be overcome.
An NPR-PBS-Marist poll released this week found 30 percent of U.S. adults overall did not want the vaccine, a number that spiked to 49 percent among Republican men.
In a bid to urge the public to take the vaccine, four former presidents released a public service announcement this week touting vaccinations. But notably, former President Trump did not participate, and got the vaccine himself away from the cameras.
“We are not always the best messenger, here, a Democratic administration, to communicate to everyone in the public about the safety, the efficacy and the importance of taking the vaccine and so we are very open to working with a range of partners and messengers, outside groups, outside organizations,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday.
Make signing up for an appointment easier
Some state sign-up efforts have been plagued with technical problems and frustrations for those trying to get an appointment online, who have often been older people in the early rounds of vaccinations.
In Massachusetts, the sign-up website crashed in February as thousands of newly-eligible people over 65 were trying to book appointments.
Washington, D.C., has also had technical problems plague its website, later switching to a system of pre-registration to be notified of a chance to book an appointment.
The Biden administration said Thursday that it will set up a federal website showing people the locations near them that have vaccines available, starting by May 1.
That website will be closely watched for any technical problems. The healthcare.gov website to sign up for ObamaCare coverage famously broke down when launched in 2013. Some of the people brought in to fix the site are now working on the Biden administration’s coronavirus response.
Make clear what vaccinated people can do
The final step of the vaccination process is giving guidance to people on what it is safe to do after they are vaccinated. The guidance can also help with messaging in convincing people to sign up, highlighting the activities that will be safe again.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance released on Monday stirred a debate, with some critics saying it was too conservative. The guidance said that vaccinated people can gather with each other without masks or distancing, and with one unvaccinated household, but continued to advise against travel.
Jha, of Brown University, said he largely agreed but thinks that vaccinated people could travel with precautions.
“The reason why I gently disagree on travel is of course I think right now people if they need to travel and have been fully vaccinated can, but they’ve got to continue wearing their face masks, they’ve got to continue doing all the public health measures,” he said.
Still, the Biden administration says it will be updating the guidance as the situation in the country improves, to allow for more activities, including travel.
Tying into the goal of a more normal Independence Day, the White House said the guidance would be expanded “as we approach July 4th.”
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