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Why The COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Has Gotten Off To A Slow Start

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The campaign to vaccinate Americans against COVID-19 is getting off to a slower start than officials had hoped - much slower. Here's a key number - in recent weeks, about 3 million people received their first shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. But that's far short of what officials had forecast - that 20 million Americans would be vaccinated by now. Joining us to talk about what it will take to speed up the process is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Hey, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey. Happy New Year to you.

FADEL: Happy New Year. So, Richard, I was hoping in the new year you were here to tell us the vaccines will soon be readily available. But it sounds like the country is far short of that forecasted 20 million. What happened?

HARRIS: Well, there are lots of reasons. Let's start with expectations. The Trump administration has long promised quick fixes to the coronavirus pandemic, including a vaccine that would be widely available in 2020. And, indeed, the administration did back an effort that produced vaccines for COVID in record time. But I spoke yesterday with Dr. Marcus Plescia, who is the chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. And his take is that the timetable for vaccination was largely aspirational.

MARCUS PLESCIA: We just had a meeting with the majority of our state health officials. And, you know, the feeling from them was that it actually was rolling out quite well. You know, it's only been a couple of weeks.

HARRIS: This is an enormous undertaking. It is the most massive vaccination campaign in U.S. history. And he says health officials are still very much on the learning curve.

FADEL: So what are the challenges they're running into as they move forward?

HARRIS: Well, Plescia says, for one thing, it's the holiday season, so many overstressed health care workers have been trying to grab a few well-deserved days off. But he says the biggest logistical challenge is vaccinating people during a pandemic, which means maintaining physical distancing. Nobody wants to spread COVID-19 to people standing in line waiting to get vaccinated against the disease. And don't forget, once people have been vaccinated, they have to wait nearby for at least 15 minutes just in case they have a rare reaction that requires medical attention. So you need safe places for people to do that, too.

FADEL: So lots of logistical challenges. But frankly, they've got to pick up the pace of vaccinations if most Americans are going to get their shots in the coming months. What needs to happen?

HARRIS: Right. Well, Plescia says he expects the pace to quicken a lot in January, after the holidays and as health providers figure out how to optimize their routines. But some of this also involves money. The federal government has poured billions of dollars into developing, manufacturing and distributing these vaccines, but it has provided very little funding to local health care workers who had the enormous task of vaccinating people. Dr. Howard Koh at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health says some significant funding to hire new staff to do just that is finally on the way thanks to the COVID relief bill that just got signed.

HOWARD KOH: The new congressional package is an excellent downpayment, has some $8 billion out of a $900 billion relief package to shore up a public health infrastructure that's been hollowed out for far too long. But the public health systems at the state and local level need much more support going forward if we're going to return to any sense of normal soon.

HARRIS: He's also incensed that some members of the public have been provoked to lash out against public health officials over issues like mask wearing and closing businesses and so on, when, in fact, the public health system is playing such a vital role in helping us through this pandemic, giving us these vaccines.

FADEL: Right. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, thank you.

HARRIS: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.