Last month, the Food and Drug Administration approved two separate coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. Given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation to prioritize health care workers and staff at long-term care facilities, most people were fine with not being the first in line for vaccination. But as the weeks have crawled by, reports have showed that the federal government isn't keeping up with its vaccine projections. Now, many are wondering what that means for when they'll be able to get the coronavirus vaccine.
Officials from Operation Warp Speed were very optimistic with their initial projections, claiming that the United States would vaccinate 20 million people by the end of 2020. However, data shows that vaccinations are lagging far behind these projections; the vaccines have been finalized and delivered to hospitals and other facilities, but they're not being administered in a timely fashion. Bloomberg reported that as of Dec. 28, only 2.13 million people have received their first dose of vaccinations, even though 11.45 million doses from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have been distributed.
Nearly a week into the new year, those numbers have grown — but only slightly. Per the CDC's COVID Data Tracker, 5.9 million people have now received their first dose of vaccinations, with a total of 21.4 million distributed. While it is good to any improvement, the U.S. remains far behind its projected 20 million vaccinated by the end of 2020.
Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, went on NBC's Today show to speak on the delayed rollout. He acknowledged that the 20 million target "obviously ... didn't happen," calling the failure disappointing. But, he said, "Hopefully as you get into the first couple weeks in January, the gaining of momentum will get us to the point where we want to be."
Why is the rollout going so slowly?
A big part of the issue with the rollout is that the Trump administration didn't prepare enough to actually distribute a brand-new vaccine across the country in an emergency situation. Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania, pointed out last week on CNN that while the Trump administration poured billions into developing a vaccine, it didn't have the same energy in planning for distribution.
"The urgency that we brought to making a vaccine and the money that we brought to making a vaccine, we spent $24 billion doing essentially a Manhattan Project-like response ... That's the vaccine part," Offit said. "Now comes the vaccination part, which is equally hard and is equally going to go to require this Manhattan Project-like response." Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, also appeared on CNN calling for "mass vaccination" events, where the government could use election polling stations, convention centers, and other large areas as temporary clinics to get people inoculated.
"We need to be vaccinating about 2 million people a day ... as opposed to the 150,000 people a day. And I just don't see the urgency," Reiner said. "We need to go into mass vaccination mode, and we need to do it now."
However, the Trump administration claims that the rollout isn't as bad as the CDC figures show, blaming the inaccuracies on reporting delays. Michael Pratt, a spokesman for Operation Warp Speed, told CNBC, "Operation Warp Speed remains on track to have approximately 40 million doses of vaccine and allocate 20 million doses for first vaccinations by the end of December 2020, with distribution of the 20 million first doses spanning into the first week of January as states place orders for them." But the CDC data quoted above proves that this did not happen.
As usual, Trump himself has taken to Twitter to defend his administration and shift blame for vaccination delays to state governments. On Dec. 29, he tweeted, "It is up to the states to distribute the vaccines once brought to the designated areas by the federal government." Then a day later, he followed up with, "The federal government has distributed the vaccines to the states. Now it is up to the states to administer. Get moving!"
Placing the onus of vaccine distribution on 50 individual states is ill-advised, though. Throughout the year, state health departments have struggled, too, given that they are overtaxed and ill-equipped to oversee such a massive operation. Overall, it is the federal government's job to help with planning, distribution, and ensure that each state has the resources necessary to carry out a mass vaccination effort. After all, the coronavirus pandemic is not a problem for individual states — it is a problem for the entire country at large.
While Congress did include almost $9 billion for vaccine distribution in its recent relief package, states say the aid may be too late. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University's School of Public Health, told Politico, "They should have done that early. And they should have gotten that money out to the states. And then they should have worked with states to set up all of these places, so that by the time the vaccines arrived, we had all the sites located for where the vaccinations were going to happen."
Okay, not great. So when will the vaccine be widely available?
With all that said, when will the rollout get on track so everyday people can get their vaccines? Unfortunately, it's not looking like that'll be anytime soon.
In November, Reuters reported that public health officials said vaccines would be available in most pharmacies, clinics, and doctor's offices starting in April. That would mean that most people would be able to get their vaccines by the end of June. Some people in certain demographics — front-line workers, older people, people with pre-existing health conditions — may be able to access the vaccine earlier, and the availability can vary by state as some have been more successful in administration than others. But broadly, due to the Trump administration's shoddy rollout, the thought that virtually everyone would be able to access the vaccine by early next summer is no longer fully realistic.
In reality, there are no clear answers for when vaccines will be publicly available. However, the transition into President-elect Joe Biden's administration may bring faster distribution. During a speech on last week, Biden criticized Trump's rollout, stating, "As I long feared and warned, the effort to distribute and administer the vaccine is not progressing as it should." He additionally warned that at the current pace, "it's gonna take years, not months, to vaccinate the American people." David Wallace-Wells at New York recently estimated that it would take seven years to achieve sufficient herd immunity, with the way the rollout is going.
Biden said his team will take a "much more aggressive effort, with more federal involvement and leadership, to get things back on track." And, Biden added, he will "move heaven and Earth to get us going in the right direction."