It’s been nearly a month since the Food and Drug Administration granted its first vaccine emergency use authorizations to Moderna and Pfizer. Since then, only about 7 million doses were administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At current rates, it will take years to vaccinate everyone in the country. Why has the vaccine rollout fallen below expectations, and what can we do next to course-correct?
It seems many of the issues with the vaccine rollout, as well as with testing and reopenings, stem from lacking federal planning. As early as October, the CDC released an interim playbook for vaccine distribution. The 75-page document outlined how vaccines would be distributed to you and me when authorized and available en masse. As I wrote for Forbes at the time, it was clear from this document that vaccine distribution would face difficulties. Like testing and reopening plans in the early pandemic, responsibility for vaccine distribution was shifted to states and localities.
Federally led public health programs are uniform, organized, and typically more efficient. When spearheaded by states and localities, public health programs can be disorganized, overwhelmed, and unprepared. It seems the vaccine rollout would qualify as such. Complications with recruiting vaccine administrators, failing to reach week-by-week vaccination goals, and vaccine misinformation have troubled the rollout with slowdowns and confusion.
When those interim vaccination plans were released in July, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimated 100 million doses would be available by the end of 2020. Enter 2021, and less than 7% of that amount was administered. With 2,000 to 4,000 people dying from Covid-19 in the US every day, we need to address the failed rollout and adjust our strategy moving forward.
The first clear step is for the federal government, i.e., the entering Biden Administration, to take responsibility for vaccine distribution. One of the most straightforward improvements a federally-led vaccine program would bring is clear goal-setting and standardized vaccine shipment plans. Federal authorities could prioritize vaccine shipments based on rates of Covid-19 infection and hospitalization, as well as population. Creating simple and standardized plans for distribution will help states efficiently prepare for vaccines and organize administration regimes.
The incoming Biden Administration could additionally help with recruiting vaccine administrators. Some states are falling desperately short of staffers qualified for vaccine administration. A federal program for training health professionals or even volunteers to distribute a vaccine could alleviate those issues. The HHS also oversees the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which are several thousand military personnel trained in healthcare and medical services. They should be fully utilized to manage vaccination efforts nationwide.
The federal government finally needs to utilize its media reach to encourage everyone to seek the vaccine. It seems there has been a concerted effort to promote government officials receiving their vaccination online, but there remains significant potential for vaccine advertisement. Think of all the military ads you see on cable. According to the Center for Media Literacy, the military spends around $200 million annually on media marketing. A similar media effort should be made in support of the vaccination program.
A transition of power in the coming weeks presents the opportunity to rapidly course-correct and administer tens of millions of vaccinations at a much faster rate. Democratic strategist Liza Acevedo assures that the Biden team “are going to utilize every resource possible” to achieve 100 million vaccinations in his first hundred days in office. Pfizer supported this rallying cry, releasing a statement claiming the company is “ready to release millions of doses each day.”
The Biden team is also planning to distribute second doses efficiently and ethically. They do not plan on “withholding and not giving the second dose,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci. “They are completely committed to giving the second dose on time. They feel that the importance of getting as many people as possible is worth the risk.” Currently, all approved vaccines in the US come in two doses, but Johnson & Johnson is in the final stages of trial for a one-dose vaccine, which would simplify distribution logistics immensely.
It seems, based on statements in recent weeks, that President-Elect Biden is willing to take on the vaccine task, but whether or not Congress will promote further Covid-19 spending remains to be seen. The federal government has a duty to protect its citizens. Let’s see if they uphold that duty in the coming months with vaccines.