Although the nation reached a grim and long-dreaded milestone on Monday, surpassing 500,000 lives lost to COVID—more than were killed in two World Wars and the Vietnam conflict combined—the news this week was mostly good, as key indicators of the pandemic’s severity continued to rapidly improve.
Over the past two weeks, hospitalizations for COVID were down 30 percent, deaths were down 22 percent, and new cases declined by 32 percent—the lowest levels since late October. This week’s numbers declined somewhat more slowly than last week’s, leading Dr. Rachel Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to caution people against letting their guard down just yet: “Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions.” Of particular concern are new variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in numerous states, including one in New York and another in California, that may be more contagious than the original virus.
The best news of the week was surely a report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluating the new, single-shot COVID vaccine from Johnson & Johnson (J&J), showing it to be highly effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death caused by COVID, including variants. On Friday, a panel of outside experts met to assess whether to approve the J&J vaccine for emergency use, which would make it the third in the nation’s arsenal of COVID vaccines. If approved, the vaccine will be rolled out next week, according to the White House, with up to 4M doses available immediately.
The sooner the better: new data show that since vaccinations began in late December, new cases among nursing home residents have fallen more than 80 percent—a hopeful glimpse at the future that lies ahead for the general population once vaccines become widely available.
More than half of adults in the U.S. (55%) say they’ve already gotten one dose of Covid-19 vaccine or they’re eager to get one as soon as they can, an increase in acceptance from January (47%), a new poll reports. About 1 in 5 people are waiting to see how the vaccine rollout goes, but don’t rule out vaccination. Another 1 in 5 people are more reluctant: 7% would get vaccinated only if required by work, school, or some other activity, and 15% say no to vaccine under any circumstance. The increase in eagerness spans all demographic groups, but Black adults and young adults under age 30 were most likely to say they want to wait and see.
The Biden administration has been quite cautious in setting its public vaccination goals.
During the transition, officials said they hoped to give shots to one million Americans per day — a level the Trump administration nearly reached in its final days, despite being badly behind its own goals. In President Biden’s first week in office, he raised the target to 1.5 million, although his aides quickly added that it was more of a “hope” than a “goal.” Either way, the country is now giving about 1.7 million shots per day.
I have spent some time recently interviewing public-health experts about what the real goal should be, and I came away with a clear message: The Biden administration is not being ambitious enough about vaccinations, at least not in its public statements.
An appropriate goal, experts say, is three million shots per day — probably by April. At that pace, half of adults would receive their first shot by April and all adults who wanted a shot could receive one by June, saving thousands of lives and allowing normal life to return by midsummer.
Biden struck a somewhat more ambitious tone yesterday, telling CNN that anybody who wanted a vaccine would be able to get one “by the end of July.” But Dr. Anthony Fauci also said that the timeline for when the general population could receive shots was slipping from April to May or June.
The shots are on their way
The key fact is that the delivery of vaccine doses is on the verge of accelerating rapidly. Since December, Moderna and Pfizer have delivered fewer than one million shots per day to the government.
But over the next month and a half, the two companies have promised to deliver at least three million shots per day — and to accelerate the pace to about 3.3 million per day starting in April. Johnson & Johnson is likely to add to that total if, as expected, it receives the go-ahead to start distributing shots in coming weeks.
Very soon, the major issue won’t be supply. It will be logistics: Can the Biden administration and state and local governments administer the shots at close to the same rate that they receive them?
“I’m not hearing a plan,” Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, told me. “In the public statements, I don’t hear that sense of urgency.”
Bankers’ hours for vaccine clinics
The experts I interviewed said they understood why Biden had set only modest public goals so far.Manufacturing vaccines is complex, and falling short of a high-profile goal would sew doubt during a public-health emergency, as Barry Bloom, a Harvard immunologist, told me. If he were president, Bloom added, he would also want to exceed whatever goal was appearing in the media.
But setting aside public relations, experts say that the appropriate goal is to administer vaccine shots at roughly the same rate that drug makers deliver them — with a short delay, of a week or two, for logistics. Otherwise, millions of doses will languish in storage while Americans are dying and the country remains partially shut down.
“We should be doing more,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, said. “I am kind of surprised by how constrained we’ve been.”Many vaccine clinics operate only during business hours, she noted. And the government has not done much to expand the pool of vaccine workers — say, by training E.M.T. workers.
The newly contagious variants of the virus add another reason for urgency. They could cause an explosion of cases in the spring, Hotez said, and lead to mutations that are resistant to the current vaccines. But if the vaccines can crush the spread before then, the mutations may not take hold.
“We need to be laser focused on getting as many people vaccinated now as possible,” Dr. Paul Sax, a top infectious-disease official at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told me.
As my colleague Katie Thomas, who covers the vaccines, said: “The future looks bright — if we can do vaccination quickly enough, if people actually want the vaccines and if the variants don’t mess with the plan.”
‘Our historic moment of crisis’
Nobody doubts that vaccinating three million Americans every day for months on end would be a herculean task.
When I asked Biden about his virus plan during a December phone call, he used the term “logistical nightmare” to describe a rapid national vaccination program. “This is going to be one of the hardest and most costly challenges in American history,” he said.
Since then, his aides have emphasized the challenges — the possibility of manufacturing problems, the difficulty of working with hundreds of local agencies, the need to distribute vaccines equitably. They also point out that they have nearly doubled the pace of vaccination in their first month in office, accelerated the pace of delivery from drugmakers and have plans to do more, like open mass-vaccination clinics and expand the pool of vaccine workers.
Part of me wonders whether the White House knows that three million shots per day is the right goal and simply doesn’t want to say so.
When Biden and his advisers talk about the fight against Covid-19, they sometimes compare it to wartime mobilization. And the U.S. has accomplished amazing logistical feats during wartime. A single Michigan auto plant figured out how to manufacture a new B-24 bomber plane every hour during World War II, and a network of West Coast factories built one warship per day — for four years.
“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge,” Biden said during his inaugural address. “We have never, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together.”
Near the end of the speech, he added a question: “Will we rise to the occasion?”
The national COVID indicators all continued to move in the right direction this week, with new cases down 16 percent, hospitalizations down 26 percent, and deaths (while still alarmingly high at more than 3,000 per day) down 6 percent from the week prior.
More good news: both nationally and globally, the number of people vaccinated against COVID now exceeds the total number of people infected with the virus, at least according to official statistics—the actual number of coronavirus infections is likely several times higher.
On the vaccine front, Johnson & Johnson filed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an Emergency Use Authorization for its single-dose COVID vaccine, which could become the third vaccine approved for use in the US following government review later this month. The J&J vaccine is reportedly 85 percent effective at preventing severe COVID disease, although it is less effective at preventing infection than the Pfizer and Moderna shots.
Elsewhere, TheLancet reported interim Phase III results for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine trials, showing it to be 91 percent effective at preventing infection, and a new study found the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to be 75 percent effective against the more-contagious UK virus variant.
Amid the positive vaccine news, the Biden administration moved to accelerate the vaccination campaign, invoking the Defense Production Act to boost production and initiating shipments directly to retail pharmacies. With the House and Senate starting the budget reconciliation process that could eventually lead to as much as $1.9T in stimulus funding, including billions more for vaccines and testing, it feels as though the tide may be finally turning in the battle against coronavirus.
While the key indicators are still worrisome—we’re only back to Thanksgiving-week levels of new cases—and emerging variants are cause for concern, it’s worth celebrating a week that brought more good news than bad.
Best to follow Dr. Fauci’s advice for this Super Bowl weekend, however: “Just lay low and cool it.”
“And we believe that we’ll soon be able to confirm the purchase of an additional 100 million doses for each of the two FDA-authorized vaccines: Pfizer and Moderna,” Biden said. “That’s 100 million more doses of Pfizer and 100 million more doses of Moderna — 200 million more doses than the federal government had previously secured. Not in hand yet, but ordered. We expect these additional 200 million doses to be delivered this summer.”
After review of the current vaccine supply from manufacturing plants, the federal government believes it can increase overall weekly vaccination distribution to states, tribes, and territories from 8.6 million doses to a minimum of 10 million doses, starting next week.
But the pandemic is expected to get worse before it gets better, Biden said, with experts predicting the death toll as likely to top 500,000 by the end of February.
“But the brutal truth is: It’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated. Months. In the next few months, masks — not vaccines — are the best defense against COVID-19,” he said.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The increases in the total vaccine order in the United States from 400 million ordered to 600 million doses will be enough vaccine to fully vaccinate 300 Americans by the end of the summer or the beginning of fall, Biden said.
“It’ll be enough to fully vaccinate 300 [million] Americans to beat this pandemic — 300 million Americans,” he said. “And this is an aggregate plan that doesn’t leave anything on the table or anything to chance, as we’ve seen happen in the past year.”
Biden’s team said they found the vaccine program to be in worse shape than they thought it would be and that they were starting from scratch.
“But it’s also no secret that we have recently discovered, in the final days of the transition — and it wasn’t until the final days we got the kind of cooperation we needed — that once we arrived, the vaccine program is in worse shape than we anticipated or expected,” Biden said.
Governors have been guessing at what they’ll receive for vaccine shipments, the president said.
The federal government is working with the private industry to ramp up production of vaccine and protective equipment such as syringes, needles, gloves, swabs and masks. The team has already identified suppliers and is working with them to move the plan forward.
Also, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is being directed to to stand up the first federally-supported community vaccination centers and to make vaccines available to thousands of local pharmacies beginning in early February.
THE LARGER TREND
Last week, Biden signed a declaration to begin reimbursing states 100% for the use of their National Guard to help the COVID-19 relief effort, both in getting sites set up and in using some of their personnel to administer the vaccines.
Biden has also said he wants to expand testing, which will help reopen schools and businesses.
He has formalized the Health Equity Task Force to ensure that the most vulnerable populations have access to vaccines.
He is also pushing for a $1.9 trillion relief package.
A key part of President Biden’s new coronavirus strategy is a push to administer 100 million doses in 100 days, or a lofty sounding 1 million immunizations a day.
That goal, part of a comprehensive national plan launched this week, has raised questions about how quickly the United States can, and should aim to, deliver vaccines to its population.
The strategy document calls the 1 million shots per day pace “aggressive,” an effort that will “take every American doing their part.” But critics have pointed out that it does not constitute a major leap from the current rate, which has already neared or even surpassed the target. Many wonder why the country cannot move more swiftly.
It remains possible that the United States could pick up its pace as vaccine supply increases and logistics improve. But in international context 1 million doses a day does not seem slow.
Though differences in population, logistical capacity and data transparency, along with different levels of vaccine vetting and effectiveness between vaccine types, make it hard to compare vaccination campaigns across countries, the United States is near the top of the pack, behind some of the fastest countries to vaccinate, including Israel and Britain, but ahead of most of the rest of the world.
The biggest factor shaping the rate of vaccination is global supply.
Though the development and emergency approval of coronavirus vaccines has unfolded at an unprecedented pace, drug companies are scrambling to make enough doses to meet demand. As some countries receive a high number of doses from among the limited total produced, others must wait their turn.
So far, a small number of relatively rich countries, including the United States, have snapped up the initial supply, relegating low- and middle-income countries to the back of the line — possibly for years. Some projections suggest poor countries will not have enough doses until 2023 or 2024.
Rich countries are set to fare better. The European Commission aims to vaccinate 70 percent of the adult population of the European Union by the summer, though details of that plan are not yet clear.
Anthony S. Fauci, adviser to President Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this week that the United States could potentially reach “herd immunity” by fall 2021.
Will other large countries move faster than the United States?
Possibly, but it is hard to say.
Questions about manufacturing capacity, the potential approval of additional vaccines and the impact of the new U.K. variant make predictions tough. However, India offers an interesting point of comparison.
On Jan. 16, India launched a plan to vaccinate 300 million people by August.
The roughly 200 day push to deliver 600 million doses is more ambitious than the U.S. plan. However, India’s population is more than three times larger than that of the United States.
China promised to vaccinate some 50 million people against the coronavirus before the Lunar New Year holiday next month — a seemingly rapid pace. But a report in a news outlet controlled by the ruling Communist Party said the country had administered 15 million doses by Jan. 20.
There are also questions about whether Chinese-made vaccines are as effective as the Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca formulations used elsewhere.
Days after Brazilian officials announced that a vaccine made by Chinese company Sinovac was 78 percent effective protecting against moderate and severe covid-19 cases, for instance, they were forced to clarify that the shot’s efficacy rate among all cases was only 50.4 percent.
Ultimately, the biggest difference between the U.S. vaccination push and the Chinese effort is need.
Though there are doubts about China’s figures, the country reports just above 4,600 coronavirus deaths to date — comparable to the 4,409 U.S. deaths on Inauguration Day alone.
The former White House coronavirus response coordinator told CBS News’s “Face The Nation” that she saw Trump presenting graphs about the coronavirus that she did not help make. Someone inside or outside of the administration, she said, “was creating a parallel set of data and graphics that were shown to the president.”
Birx also said that there were people in the White House who believed the coronavirus was a hoax and that she was one of only two people in the White House who routinely wore masks.
Birx was often caught between criticism from Trump, who at one point called her “pathetic” on Twitter when she contradicted his more optimistic predictions for the virus, and critics in the scientific community who thought she did not do enough to combat false information about the virus from Trump, The Post’s Meryl Kornfield reports.
“Colleagues of mine that I’d known for decades — decades — in that one experience, because I was in the White House, decided that I had become this political person, even though they had known me forever,” she told CBS. “I had to ask myself every morning, ‘Is there something that I think I can do that would be helpful in responding to this pandemic?’ And it’s something I asked myself every night.”
Anthony Fauci,director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,told the New York Times that Trump repeatedly tried to minimize the severity of the virus and would often chide him for not being positive enough in his statements about the virus.
Fauci also described facing death threats as he was increasingly vilified by the president’s supporters.“One day I got a letter in the mail, I opened it up and a puff of powder came all over my face and my chest,” he said. The powder turned out to be benign.
Anthony Fauci on Friday said that a lack of facts “likely did” cost lives over the last year in the nation’s efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
In an appearance on CNN, the nation’s leading infectious diseases expert was directly asked whether a “lack of candor or facts” contributed to the number of lives lost during the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.
“You know it very likely did,” Fauci said. “You know I don’t want that … to be a sound bite, but I think if you just look at that,you can see that when you’re starting to go down paths that are not based on any science at all, that is not helpful at all, and particularly when you’re in a situation of almost being in a crisis with the number of cases and hospitalizations and deaths that we have.”
“When you start talking about things that make no sense medically and no sense scientifically, that clearly is not helpful,” he continued.
President Biden on Thursday unveiled a new national coronavirus strategy that is, in part, aimed at “restoring trust in the American people.”
When asked why that was important, Fauci recognized that the past year of dealing with the pandemic had been filled with divisiveness.
“There’s no secret. We’ve had a lot of divisiveness, we’ve had facts that were very, very clear that were questioned. People were not trusting what health officials were saying, there was great divisiveness, masks became a political issue,” Fauci said.
“So what the president was saying right from the get-go was, ‘Let’s reset this. Let everybody get on the same page, trust each other, let the science speak.’”
Fauci, who was thrust into the national spotlight last year as part of former President Trump‘s coronavirus task force, often found himself at odds with the former president. Trump frequently downplayed the severity of the virus and clashed publicly with Fauci.
Speaking during a White House press briefing on Thursday, Fauci said it was “liberating” to be working in the Biden administration.
There have been more than 24,600,000 coronavirus infections in the U.S. since the pandemic began, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University. More than 410,000 people have died.