United States President Joe Biden’s chief of staff has said state-level distribution plans for COVID-19 vaccines “did not really exist” under Donald Trump’s administration, even as the pandemic surged in the former president’s final months in office.
“The process to distribute the vaccine, particularly outside of nursing homes and hospitals, out into the community as a whole, did not really exist when we came into the White House,” Ron Klain said in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.
Klain’s comments come amid reports of state-level snafus in vaccine distribution and shortages in some parts of the country, which has recorded more than 25 million COVID-19 infections and at least 417,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic – the highest tallies in the world.
Biden, who took over from Trump on Wednesday, has promised a fierce fight against the deadly novel coronavirus.
While the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed has aided in the development and manufacturing of vaccines, the vaccine roll-out has lagged and the US missed its target of inoculating 20 million Americans by the end of 2020.
Instead, that target was only met in mid-January, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. CDC data shows that just about half of the 41.4 million vaccines that have been distributed to US states have been administered to date.
Under Trump, the federal government distributed vaccines to states based on population, with further distribution largely left up to state governments.
Top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, who worked on the coronavirus task force under Trump, on Friday said the previous administration had left too much of the responsibility to the states.
That was echoed by Klain on Sunday. “We’ve seen this factor all over the country where millions of doses have been distributed, but only about half have been given out,” he said.
“So the process of getting that vaccine into arms – that’s the hard process. That’s where we’re behind as a country,” he said. “That’s where we’re focused in the Biden administration – on getting that ramped up.”
Biden promises to work with states
Biden has set a goal of administering 100 million vaccinations within his first 100 days in office, a figure that some have criticised as not ambitious enough. He also signed a series of executive orders last week, including some that target vaccine distribution.
The Biden administration plans to partner with state and local governments to establish vaccination spots in conference centres, stadiums and gymnasiums.
The new administration also said it would deploy thousands of clinical staff from federal agencies, military medical personnel and pharmacy chains to increase vaccinations, and make teachers and grocery clerks eligible.
The COVID-19 vaccine roll-out in the US, which began in mid-December, has been defined by a patchwork of challenges for state governments, which are wrestling with the monumental task of inoculating their populations.
On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that the largest city in the country is “burning through” their supply of vaccines, adding “we need more doses immediately”.
Meanwhile, the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has said just 67 percent of New York healthcare workers have received their vaccine. Without an increase in production, the healthcare system could face further strain, Cuomo added.
In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy has said a federal programme within the state to help nursing home residents has distributed only 10 percent of its vaccines.
Meanwhile, an Associated Press analysis of federal hospital data found that since November, the share of US hospitals nearing breaking point has doubled.
More than 40 percent of Americans now live in areas running out of ICU space, with only 15 percent of beds still available, the news agency reported on Sunday.
The strain has brought nurses in hard-hit hospitals to a breaking point, Dr Marc Boom, the CEO of the Texas-based Houston Methodist hospitals, told AP.
‘Why not make it easy?’
A significant problem has also been organising vaccine distribution to smaller pharmacies and clinics.
In California, only a handful of independent pharmacies have been able to acquire vaccines for their customers – generally only in rural areas where big chain stores are not present, Sonya Frausto, a pharmacist in the state capital of Sacramento, told Reuters news agency.
Jerry Shapiro, a 78-year-old who owns an independent pharmacy in downtown Los Angeles, told Reuters he had spent hours over the last month trying to contact health agencies to receive a vaccine, to no avail. He was able to finally make an appointment on Saturday.
Shapiro said his customers have also been calling daily seeking vaccines, but he has to tell them he has no supply.
“Why not make it easy?” asked Shapiro, who is also concerned about his wife because of medical conditions that would make her particularly vulnerable to the virus.
“Have it in your neighbourhood. Set up an appointment, get your shot and be done.”