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What The U.S. Can Do To Improve The Coronavirus Vaccine Rollout


For the first time, this week, the U.S. recorded more than 4,000 deaths from COVID in a single day. And every day, at least a quarter-million Americans test positive for the virus. While vaccines offer hope, the rollout has been haphazard and slow. The Biden transition team has announced plans to accelerate the vaccination campaign when they take over later this month. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin has details and joins us. Selena, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: What did the Biden people announce?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: OK, so you know how both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots? Well, Operation Warp Speed, which is the federal effort managing vaccine distribution, has been holding back millions of second doses and not sending them out to the field. Yesterday, President-elect Biden's incoming press secretary, Jen Psaki, said they plan to change course.


JEN PSAKI: The president-elect supports distributing most but not all of the currently reserved doses and will take action to make that change when he takes office.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She said this will allow more people to get those first doses and that Biden would use the Defense Production Act if needed to ensure manufacturers can keep up making second doses on time.

SIMON: Selena, how's this different from the one dose idea that was getting talked about this week? And the FDA warned against it, didn't they?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So this is not the same thing. They're - Biden's team is not suggesting that you can just forget about the second dose, and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health emphasized that point to NPR yesterday. He is, of course, a member of President Trump's COVID-19 Task Force, and he's been advising the incoming Biden administration.

ANTHONY FAUCI: They're not talking about withholding and not giving the second dose. They are completely committed to giving the second dose on time, but they feel that the importance of getting as many people as possible is worth the risk. Hopefully the companies will get the doses back there in time.

SIMON: And, Selena, what's been the reaction to this idea?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, public health officials and experts that NPR talked to yesterday, by and large, said that this is a good move. It is a bit of a gamble. One official I talked to called it aggressive. And here's Claire Hannan, who runs the Association for Immunization Managers. And those are the people in charge of each state's vaccination plans.

CLAIRE HANNAN: I think it's probably a good thing to get more doses flowing.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says with so many people dying every day, this may be better than keeping vaccine in a freezer somewhere. Of course, there are problems that more doses won't solve, like finding willing people to get shots because of vaccine hesitancy and just general disorganization and chaos that we've heard about in different places.

SIMON: What are some of the other ideas that you've heard that might help the vaccine campaign be more successful and go faster?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, money is the No. 1 thing that health officials say they need right now. And the good news is that it's coming. Three billion dollars from CDC is finally on its way after Congress' year-end relief bill. Many officials say they plan to use some of that money for big-scale communications campaigns to try to combat hesitancy and misinformation.

And other suggestions include using bigger venues. We saw New Jersey and Texas and other states announce these mega sites opening up where a thousand or more people can get vaccinated every day.

And there's also excitement about some new vaccine candidates on the horizon that aren't as complicated to handle, including a one-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. Officials are hoping they'll ask FDA for emergency use authorization really soon.

SIMON: And we're only a few weeks into this whole campaign, Selena. What might be next?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Oh, boy, yes. In some ways, this is the easy part. Right now, front-line health workers and long-term care residents are the groups CDC advises should get the vaccine. We've heard reports that that's not always what's happening, but that is the federal guidance. But in a few weeks, it'll be the turn of essential workers and people over 75. And those are much bigger, more diverse groups. So public health officials really have their work cut out for them.

SIMON: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, thanks so much.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.