|Three million shots a day|
|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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Monday that 2.1 million doses of coronavirus vaccines have been administered in two weeks. While this might sound like an impressive number, it should set off alarms.
Let’s start with the math. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease doctor, estimates that 80 to 85 percent of Americans need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses. Eighty percent of the American population is around 264 million people, so we need to administer 528 million doses to achieve herd immunity.
At the current rate, it would take the United States approximately 10 years to reach that level of inoculation. That’s right — 10 years. Contrast that with the Trump administration’s rosy projections: Earlier this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar predicted that every American will be able to get the vaccine by the second quarter of 2021 (which would be the end of June). The speed needed to do that is 3.5 million vaccinations a day.
There’s reason to believe the administration won’t be able to ramp up vaccination rates anywhere close to those levels. Yes, as vaccine production increases, more will be available to the states. And Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at HHS, argued on Sunday that the 2.1 million administered vaccines figure was an underestimate due to delayed reporting. So let’s be generous and say the administration actually administered 4 million doses over the first two weeks.
But even that would still fall far short of the 3.5 million vaccinations needed per day. In fact, it falls far short of what the administration had promised to accomplish by the end of 2020 — enough doses for 20 million people. And remember, the first group of vaccinations was supposed to be the easiest: It’s hospitals and nursing homes inoculating their own workers and residents. If we can’t get this right, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country.
Here’s what concerns me most: Instead of identifying barriers to meeting the goal, officials are backtracking on their promises. When states learned they would receive fewer doses than they had been told, the administration said its end-of-year goal was not for vaccinations but vaccine distribution. It also halved the number of doses that would be available to people, from 40 million to 20 million. (Perhaps they hoped no one would notice that their initial pledge was to vaccinate 20 million people, which is 40 million doses, or that President Trump had at one point vowed to have 100 million doses by the end of the year.) And there’s more fancy wordplay that’s cause for concern: Instead of vaccine distribution, the administration promises “allocation” in December. Actual delivery for millions of doses wouldn’t take place until January, to say nothing of the logistics of vaccine administration.
The vaccine rollout is giving me flashbacks to the administration’s testing debacle. Think back to all the times Trump pledged that “everyone who wants a test can get one.” Every time this was fact-checked, it came up false. Instead of admitting that there wasn’t enough testing, administration officials followed a playbook to confuse and obfuscate: They first attempted to play up the number of tests done. Just like 2 million vaccines in two weeks, 1 million tests a week looked good on paper — until they were compared to the 30 million a day that some experts say are needed. The administration then tried to justify why more tests weren’t needed. Remember Trump saying that “tests create cases” or the CDC issuing nonsensical testing guidance?
When that didn’t work, Trump officials deflected blame to the states. Never mind that there should have been a national strategy or that states didn’t have the resources to ramp up testing on their own. It was easier to find excuses than to admit that they were falling short and do the hard work to remedy it.
Instead of muddying the waters, the federal government needs to take three urgent steps. First, set up a real-time public dashboard to track vaccine distribution. The public needs to know exactly how many doses are being delivered, distributed and administered. Transparency will help hold the right officials accountable, as well as target additional resources where they are most needed.
Second, publicize the plan for how vaccination will scale up so dramatically. States have submitted their individual plans to the CDC, but we need to see a national strategy that sets ambitious but realistic goals.
Third, acknowledge the challenges and end the defensiveness. The public will understand if initial goals need to be revised, but there must be willingness to learn from missteps and immediately course-correct.
I remain optimistic that vaccines will one day end this horrific pandemic that has taken far too many lives. To get there, we must approach the next several months with urgency, transparency and humility.
In the six months since the World Health Organization (WHO) detected a cluster of atypical pneumonia cases at a hospital in Wuhan, China, the coronavirus pandemic has touched every corner of the globe, carving a trail of death and despair as humankind races to catch up.
At least 10.4 million confirmed cases have been diagnosed worldwide, and the true toll is likely multiples of that figure. In the United States, health officials believe more than 20 million people have likely been infected.
A staggering 500,000 people around the globe have died in just six months. More people have succumbed to the virus in the U.S. — 126,000 — than the number of American troops who died in World War I.
But even after months of painful lockdowns worldwide, the virus is no closer to containment in many countries. Public health officials say the pandemic is getting worse, fueled by new victims in both nations that have robust medical systems and poorer developing countries.
“We all want this to be over. We all want to get on with our lives. But the hard reality is this is not even close to being over,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday. “Globally, the pandemic is actually speeding up.”
In the U.S., the fierce urgency of March and April has given way to the complacency of summer, as bars and restaurants teem with young people who appear largely convinced the virus poses no threat to them. New outbreaks, especially among younger Americans, have forced 16 states to pause or roll back their reopening plans.
“You have people who have reached that point of pandemic fatigue where they just don’t want to hear it anymore, they just want to go back to their life,” he added.
The number of new U.S. cases has risen sharply in recent weeks, led disproportionately by states in the South, the Midwest and the Sun Belt. More than a quarter-million people tested positive for the coronavirus last week, and more than 40,000 tested positive on three consecutive days over the weekend.
“We are now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around. And so I am very concerned,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a Senate panel on Tuesday.
Public health experts now worry that a rising tide of death is about to crest across the United States. Officials in Alabama, Arizona, California, Mississippi and Texas are reporting a surging number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, leading to fears that health systems could soon be overrun.
“If you’re over the hospital capacity, people will start dying faster,” said Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.
Already, Arizona has reported more coronavirus deaths per million residents in the last week, at 4.77, than any nation on Earth except Chile and Peru.
The response to the coronavirus pandemic has varied widely, and in some parts of the world, both wealthy and developing nations have brought it under control. In the U.S., some states hit hard early on have wrangled transmission under control.
But even in states that have achieved some measure of success, the spikes in cases stand in stark contrast to countries that have bent the epidemiological curves to manageable levels.
Mass screenings in South Korea crushed the spread, and quick action to identify and isolate contacts in more recent hot spots have meant new outbreaks are quickly contained. South Korea, with a population of 51 million, has reported just 316 new cases in the past week, fewer than the number of new cases reported in Rhode Island, a state with slightly more than 1 million residents.
Germany raced to protect its elderly population and rapidly expanded its hospital capacity. It deployed the world’s most successful diagnostics test, developed at a Berlin hospital, on a massive scale. With a population of 83 million, the country has reported 78 coronavirus deaths in the past week; Mississippi, population 3 million, reported 96 coronavirus-related deaths during the same period.
Vietnam imposed mandatory quarantines on contacts, including international travelers, in government-run centers to stop the spread. Among its 95 million residents, Vietnam has confirmed 355 total cases since the outbreak began. Alabama, population 4.9 million, reported 358 cases on Sunday alone.
Those countries have begun loosening restrictions on their populations and their economies, with few signs of major flare-ups.
The United States has begun to open up too but without bending the curve downward, and the results have been disastrous. The number of daily confirmed cases has more than doubled in nine states over the past two weeks and has increased by more than half in 17 more.
“I have really grave concerns that viral transmission is going to get out of control,” Besser said.
In interviews, public health experts and epidemiologists confess to feelings of depression and disgust over the state of the nation’s response. Some remain exasperated that there is still no coordinated national response from the White House or federal agencies.
President Trump has rarely mentioned the virus in recent weeks, aside from using racial epithets and suggesting his administration would slow testing to reduce the number of confirmed cases. He later said he was joking.
“There should be some sort of federal leadership,” Feigl-Ding said. “Every state’s on its own, for the most part.”
Left to their own devices, some states are trending in the right direction. Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and the District of Columbia have seen their case counts decline for two consecutive weeks or more. New York reported 4,591 new cases in the last week — a startlingly high figure but only a fraction of the 65,000 cases infecting the state during its worst week, in early April.
States with their numbers on the decline have benefited from fast action and strict measures. They’re also viewed as role models for states that are now experiencing surges.
“States who are now on the rapid upslope need to act quickly, take the advice and example of states that have already been through this,” said Abraar Karan, an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “We know what needs to be done to win this in the short run, and we are working on what needs to happen for the longer term.”
If there is a silver lining, it is that the number of tests American states are conducting on a daily basis has grown to about 600,000, on its way toward the millions the nation likely needs to fully control the spread.
But that silver lining frames a darkening cloud: As the virus spreads, even the higher testing capacity has been strained, and state and local governments are hitting their limits and running low on supplies.
The greater number of tests does not account for the speed of the spread, as Trump has suggested. The share of tests that come back positive has averaged almost 7 percent over the last week, according to The Hill’s analysis of national figures; in the first week of June, just 4.6 percent of tests were coming back positive.
If greater testing were responsible for more cases, the percentage coming back positive should decrease rather than increase. The higher positive rates are an indication the virus is spreading more rapidly.
As with so much else in American life, the coronavirus has become a political battleground. The new front is over face masks, which studies show dramatically reduce transmission. States that have mandated wearing masks in public saw the number of new cases decline by a quarter between the first and third weeks of June; states that do not require masks in any setting saw the number of cases rise by 84 percent over that same span.
“From a public health perspective, it’s demoralizing, it’s tragic … because our public health leaders know what to do to get this under control, but we’re in a situation where the CDC is not out front in a leadership role. We’re not hearing from them every day. They’re not explaining and capturing people’s hearts and minds,” said Besser, the former CDC chief. “If we have a vaccine, that will be terrific if it’s safe and effective. But until that point, these are the only tools we have, these tools of public health, and they’re very crude tools.”