The top infectious disease expert in the US, Anthony Fauci, called on the federal government on Thursday to deploy more resources to vaccinate Americans after the country missed its goal to get 20 million people inoculated by the end of the year.
As overworked, underfunded state public health departments scrambled to administer the vaccines, some senior citizens waited out overnight to receive their first dose in Florida.
“We would have liked to see it run smoothly and have 20m doses into people today, by the end of 2020, which was the projection,” Fauci said.
“Obviously it didn’t happen, and that’s disappointing,” he told NBC in an interview.
The US failure to meets its end-of-year vaccine distribution goal comes as concerns grow about the newly identified strain of Covid-19 circulating in the UK, which was reported to have reached the US this week, with cases in Colorado and California.
More than 14m vaccine doses had been distributed in the US, but only 2.1 million people have been vaccinated, said leaders of the federal vaccine program, Operation Warp Speed, at a Wednesday news conference.
The chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, Moncef Slaoui, said: “We know it should be better and we are working hard to make it better.”
Terry Beth Hadler was so eager to get vaccinated that the 69-year-old piano teacher stood in line overnight in a parking lot in Florida with hundreds of other senior citizens.
She waited 14 hours and a brawl nearly erupted before dawn on Tuesday when people cut in line outside the library in Bonita Springs where officials were offering shots on a first-come, first-served basis to those 65 or older.
“I’m afraid that the event was a super-spreader,” she said. “I was petrified.”
Overworked, underfunded state public health departments are scrambling to patch together plans for administering vaccines. Counties and hospitals have taken different approaches, leading to long lines, confusion, frustration and jammed phone lines.
A multitude of logistical concerns have complicated the process of trying to beat back the scourge that has killed over 340,000 Americans.
Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, noted the vaccine supply was limited.
“It may not be today for everyone, may not be next week. But over the next many weeks, as long as we continue getting the supply, you’re going to have the opportunity to get this,” he said on Wednesday.
Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Niaid), said to ramp up vaccine distribution, the federal government needs to provide more resources to the local governments tasked with administering the vaccine.
“Namely, the states, the cities, the counties, the places where the vaccine is actually going into the arms of individuals,” Fauci said. “We have to support the local groups, the states and the cities to help them get this task done.”
Ashish Jha, a health policy researcher and dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, echoed Fauci in pointing out that states are not getting adequate financial or technical support from the federal government.
Jha said the Trump administration, principally the Department of Health and Human Services, has set states up to fail.
“There’s a lot states still need to do,” he said. “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.”’
James McCarthy, chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann in Houston, said the hospital system there had administered about half of the roughly 30,000 doses that it has received since 15 December.
The system had to create a complicated plan from scratch.
“We can’t just hand it out like candy,” McCarthy said.
The US has had 19.7m recorded cases of Covid-19 and more than 342,400 people have died from the infection, according to Johns Hopkins University, significantly more than any other country.
December has been the nation’s deadliest month since the pandemic began in early 2020, and health officials have warned January could be worse.
More than 3,740 US coronavirus deaths were reported on Wednesday in the US, the highest death toll in a day yet, surpassing a record 24 hours for deaths the day before.
Meanwhile, Fauci said it was “inevitable” that the new variant, called B.1.1.7, would arrive in the US because of the high level of infections in the country.
He said that while it is concerning that the new variant is shown to be more efficient at spreading person to person, it has not shown signs of being more harmful and it has not shown an ability to evade the protection of the vaccines being used. “The good news is that it does not appear to be more virulent, namely making people more sick and leading to more deaths,” Fauci said.
The new variant was identified in a Colorado man in his 20s working as a national guard member supporting a care home. He had no travel history, according to the state’s health department.
Although the new variant had not been found in the US until this week, the CDC said it was probably already circulating through the country.
The agency said it had not identified the variant in its sequencing efforts, but its labs have access to only a sliver of the country’s Covid-19 cases and may not have picked it up yet.
The US has recorded more coronavirus cases and deaths than any other country. On Tuesday, President-elect Joe Biden slammed the Trump administration’s vaccine distribution efforts.
Fauci said vaccine distribution would probably ramp up in the first weeks of January.
“Hopefully as we look forward to 2021, as we get well into the year, with a combination of vaccines and proper adherence to public health measures, we can end this thing and crush it, the same way we have done with other outbreaks like polio and measles and other important infectious disease,” Fauci said. “So that’s the aim and hopefully we’ll accomplish it.”