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US COVID-19 vaccinations remain sluggish; Biden plans education campaign

Criticism continued to roll in over the Trump administration's failure to fulfill its commitment to vaccinate 20 million Americans against COVID-19 by the end of 2020 and the White House's plan for states and territories to handle the nationwide immunization program.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Jan. 2 that about 13 million doses of the vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. had been distributed and 4.2 million of the first shots of the two-dose vaccines had been administered.

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Moncef Slaoui, Operation Warp Speed chief scientific adviser
Source: Milken Institute

Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser for the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed, told CBS "Face the Nation" Jan. 3 that 17.5 million doses had now been distributed, though that was well below the 40 million, or enough to vaccinate 20 million people, he had vowed would be shipped by the end of 2020.

"We have not been delivered what was promised at the national level," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said on the same CBS program. "We are at a pace right now to deliver vaccines in Los Angeles in over five years instead of over half a year at this pace."

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson told "Face the Nation" that the problem his state is facing is the lack of human resources — enough people to vaccinate its citizens.

Venture capitalist and Pfizer board member Scott Gottlieb — the Trump administration's first commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — said on CBS Jan. 3 that the Warp Speed program should let retail pharmacies like CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. under their federal contracts start vaccinating the general public based on age now rather than waiting until later. CVS and Walgreens are currently vaccinating at long-term care facilities.

Gottlieb suggested that Pfizer and Moderna had delivered the 40 million vaccine doses to the government but 35 million of those were "sitting on a shelf somewhere."

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said it was "incomprehensible," "inexcusable" and "unrealistic" that the Trump administration left the states and territories, whose public healthcare systems were already overburdened, to design their own plans and carry out mass vaccinations without resources.

CVS and Walgreens should also not be counted on to "save the day," Romney said in a Jan. 1 statement.

Half doses

On CBS, Slaoui suggested vaccinations would move quicker if doses of Moderna's vaccine could be cut in half, with people ages 18 to 55 years receiving two 50-microgram shots rather than the two 100-microgram doses authorized by the FDA.

"We know it induces identical immune response to the 100-microgram dose and therefore we are in discussion with Moderna and with the FDA," Slaoui told CBS. "Of course, ultimately, it will be an FDA decision to accelerate injecting half the volume."

He said that strategy would work better than waiting longer to give the second shot than the 28-day period studied by Moderna — an approach the U.K. said it may use.

The idea of stretching out the period between doses so that more people can get the vaccine is not the problem in the U.S. right now, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC's "Meet the Press" Jan. 3.

"We have vaccine. We need to get it into people's arms," Fauci said.

Problems

Warp Speed officials have acknowledged there have been some problems with delivering the vaccine doses, with some shipments ending up in the wrong locations.

In West Virginia, 42 people mistakenly received doses of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc.'s COVID-19 antibody therapy instead of Moderna's vaccine at a clinic hosted by the Boone County Health Department, the state's National Guard revealed in a Dec. 31, 2020, statement.

It remains unclear how the two products got confused.

Officials said they did not believe the 42 people would be harmed by getting injections of the antibody cocktail, which is supposed to be infused.

Law enforcement officials in Grafton, Wis., said a pharmacist at Advocate Aurora Health Hospital was arrested after he intentionally left 57 vials containing 570 doses of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine out of a refrigerator, causing them to spoil.

Police said 57 doses of the bad vaccine had been administered, though health officials said they were not concerned about any adverse effects. The now useless doses were worth up to $11,000, the police said in a Dec. 31, 2020, statement.

Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, noted there have been "several" people who have had severe allergic reactions to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The CDC is expected to soon outline the details of those reactions in an upcoming "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report" and will post regular updates about the cases online, Messonnier told reporters Dec. 30, 2020.

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President-elect Joe Biden
Source: Biden-Harris Transition

Biden vaccination plan

Meanwhile, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said they plan to have the federal government more involved in the nation's vaccination program and are designing a broad public education campaign, with particular focus on communities of color, to increase Americans' confidence in getting the shots.

"We will find ways to boost the pace of vaccinations," Biden said Dec. 29, 2020. "We will work to set up vaccination sites and send mobile units to hard-to-reach communities."

Biden and Harris named former Chicago public health commissioner Bechara Choucair as their vaccinations coordinator. Choucair currently serves as senior vice president and chief health officer for Kaiser Permanente. They also appointed Courtney Rowe, a former Obama administration communications official, to serve as the director of strategic communications and engagement for their COVID-19 response team.

Biden has vowed to get 100 million people vaccinated by the end of his first 100 days in office — a goal Fauci called "realistic."

"We can do 1 million people per day," Fauci said Jan. 3 on ABC's "This Week."