As the United States began 2021 by crossing the grim milestone of 20 million coronavirus cases there is increasing concern about the vaccine rollout that is going far slower, and is much more disorganized, than expected. President Donald Trump had vowed 100 million vaccinations by the end of the year. Those ambitions were later sharply reduced and the Secretary of Health and Human Services said 20 million would be vaccinated by the end of 2020. In the end, the country didn’t even get close to that number. As of Thursday, less than 3 million people had received the first dose of the vaccine, out of almost 12.5 million that had been distributed, according to the data from the Centers for Disease Control and prevention.
Many are expressing disappointment and frustration at the slow rate of the rollout, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We would’ve liked to have seen it run smoothly and have 20 million doses into people today, by the end of the (year) 2020, which was the projection. Obviously, it didn’t happen and that’s disappointing,” Fauci said Thursday. “Hopefully, as you get into the first couple of weeks in January, the gaining of momentum will get us to the point where we want to be.” President Donald Trump has shifted the blame on to states, but experts say the real problem is that the federal government is not providing enough financial or technical support to make sure the rollout goes as smoothly as possible. “There’s a lot states still need to do,” Dr. Ashish Jha, a health policy researcher and dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told the Associated Press, “but you need a much more active role from the federal government than what they have been willing to do. They’ve largely said to states, ´This is your responsibility. Figure it out.”’
President-elect Joe Biden has joined in on the chorus of criticism against the slow rollout. “As I long feared and warned the effort to distribute and administer the vaccine is not progressing as it should,” he said earlier this week, warning that at the current pace “it’s gonna take years, not months, to vaccinate the American people.”
The slow rollout is happening at a time when experts are warning that there is an urgent need to speed up vaccinations amid worrying signs that a new and more contagious variant of the virus appears to be making its way through the United States. “If the new variant replaces the existing variant and we don’t vaccinate quickly, the second wave will start cresting again and will crest really high, and that’s something to take really seriously,” Dr. Ronald Scott Braithwaite, a professor at N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine, told the New York Times.
The problem right now is largely one of bureaucracy and coordination as the federal government pushes decisions to states, and some of those states then push the decisions down to local health departments and hospitals. That has produced a patchwork of systems and has meant that while some got fewer doses than they expected others have more than they know what do with and sometimes don’t even have enough syringes to dole out the doses they do have.
With all the problems officials are facing in this initial phase of the rollout there is increased concern about what will happen once the efforts expand to include more people. “The real challenge is around what happens when we get a larger supply and what happens when we have to vaccinate people that don’t work in a hospital,” said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers. As different states make their own decisions about who should be vaccinated first that will undoubtedly lead to confusion and could spark frustration. Amid all the delay and bureaucratic confusion there is also concern that vaccines could expire before they are used.
Although it is clearly not the entirety of the problem, experts say one unexpected reason why the rollout is going slower than expected is because a surprisingly large number of health care workers are often none too eager to get the shot. In Los Angeles County, for example, somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of frontline workers who were offered the vaccine declined to get it, reports the Los Angeles Times. That dynamic seems to have caught everyone by surprise considering that researchers always assumed hospital staff would be the most eager to get vaccinated.