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What Can Be Done To Improve Pace Of Vaccine Distribution?


Happy New Year. We are going to start again with the battle against the coronavirus. We are, sorry to say, starting the new year with some of the same daunting challenges that marked the end of last year, with the virus continuing to spread, hospitals in many places becoming overwhelmed.

And there is a new challenge - getting millions of Americans vaccinated. The Trump administration had set a goal of distributing 20 million vaccine doses to be administered around the country by the end of 2020. But so far, fewer than 3 million people have been vaccinated nationwide, that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So we're going to begin by trying to figure out what's going on with that distribution effort. For that, we are joined now by Joshua Michaud. He is associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. He's been following distribution efforts closely. And I do want to mention he has advanced degrees in health policy, economics and infectious disease epidemiology, so he knows whereof he speaks.

Joshua Michaud, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JOSHUA MICHAUD: Thank you. It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, the federal government says it's distributed more than 12 million vaccine doses to the states, but it's leaving it up to each state to actually get those shots into people's arms. So it seems that the effort is pretty slow and chaotic. I mean, how are the states doing? And why are we seeing these problems?

MICHAUD: Yeah, I think what we're seeing now is what we expected to see, which is a lot of variation in how states have been able to roll out their vaccine programs. Some states are doing quite well. And you can look at examples like West Virginia, where they've actually completed vaccinating their nursing home residents and are close to completing their first-priority population. And the - there are other states that are doing, you know, less vaccination and have had a harder time scaling up the vaccines.

So part of the issue here is that we know that the two groups that have been targeted for initial vaccination are the health care workers, especially those working directly at the front lines, and persons in nursing homes, staff and residents. And the health care workers' piece has been moving along a little bit faster.

But really, I think much of the discrepancy between the number of doses that have been distributed and the number that have been administered comes from the fact that the Federal Pharmacy Partnership, which is responsible for doing a lot of the vaccination of nursing home residents, has gotten off to a real slow start in a lot of states.

MARTIN: We're talking about that federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens that's supposed to be tackling immunizations for long-term care facilities. Is that what you're talking about?

MICHAUD: That's right. Yeah. The name of the program is the Federal Pharmacy Partnership, and it's the program where the federal government through its interagency program, Operation Warp Speed, delivers doses of vaccines directly to CVS and Walgreens, who are responsible for going to nursing homes and vaccinating people there. And that program has received on the order of 2.2 million doses distributed but have only been able to vaccinate about 280,000 people through that program, at least according to the numbers that are on the CDC's website.

MARTIN: Well, I'm sorry we don't have more time to discuss this, but I just want to sort of see if we can get some clarity about what would improve this. I mean, the U.K. government announced a few days ago it's prioritizing giving as many people as possible their first dose of a COVID vaccine rather than providing the required second dose as quickly as possible. Some say the U.S. should do the same. I take it you're not a fan of that suggestion. So what would make a difference here? What would improve things?

MICHAUD: Well, the U.K. is in a different circumstance because they're talking about doing that approach with a new vaccine that they've just approved for use, the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. Of course, they have access to some of the Pfizer vaccine, which is one of the vaccines we have here. But they are really worried about this new strain of the virus, the new variant, which is - potentially has increased transmissibility and would cause a surge upon the surge that they're already facing.

And so they're really pulling out all the stops. And one of the ways that they're doing that is by using all available doses that they have, at least according to their plan, and vaccinating as many people as possible. I think that here in the United States, there's no real movement, at least that I can see, towards doing something similar. We are experiencing problems with our rollout. It's gone slower than we had hoped.


MICHAUD: But there's really no talk about getting one dose out to everybody right now.

MARTIN: Sorry, Dr. Michaud. We have to leave it there for now. That's Dr. Joshua Michaud, who's associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Thanks so much for talking to us today.

MICHAUD: All right. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.