Vaccine distribution in the United States has started more slowly than expected, federal health officials confirmed in a press conference Wednesday, but also expressed confidence that the pace would accelerate in the coming weeks.
As of Wednesday, more than 14 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines had been shipped to the United States, up from 11.4 million doses on Monday morning. However, according to a dashboard from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 2.1 million people had received their first dose on Monday morning.
“We agree that this number is lower than hoped,” said Moncef Slaoui, scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to accelerate vaccine development and distribution. He added, “We know it should be better and we are working hard to do better.”
The 2.1 million doses administered by the CDC are an underestimate of the real number due to delays in reporting. And a CDC official said in a separate press conference Wednesday that 2.6 million people had received their first dose. Whatever the number, it falls far short of the goal that federal officials put forward just this month of having 20 million people vaccinated by the end of this year.
The Operation Warp Speed press conference came the day after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. gave a speech in Wilmington, Delaware, criticizing the Trump administration for these delays. Mr Biden said that at the current vaccination rate, it will take “years, not months” to protect the whole country.
When he takes office on January 20, Mr. Biden will employ a law called the Defense Production Act to “direct private industry to expedite the manufacture of the materials and protective equipment needed for vaccines.” However, the Trump administration has already used that law to expedite manufacturing and Mr Biden has given few details on how his plan will be different. He has promised to give 100 million shots in the first 100 days of his tenure – or enough for about 50 million people if he uses the two-dose vaccines.
Answers to your vaccine questions
With a coronavirus vaccine spreading out of the US, here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the US, when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary from state to state, most doctors and residents of long-term care facilities will come first. If you want to understand how this decision is made, this article will help.
- When can I get back to normal life after the vaccination? Life will only get back to normal once society as a whole receives adequate protection against the coronavirus. Once countries have approved a vaccine, they can only vaccinate a few percent of their citizens in the first few months. The unvaccinated majority remain susceptible to infection. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines show robust protection against disease. However, it is also possible that people spread the virus without knowing they are infected because they have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Scientists don’t yet know whether the vaccines will also block the transmission of the coronavirus. Even vaccinated people have to wear masks for the time being, avoid the crowds indoors and so on. Once enough people are vaccinated, it becomes very difficult for the coronavirus to find people at risk to become infected. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve this goal, life could approach a normal state in autumn 2021.
- Do I still have to wear a mask after the vaccination? Yeah, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This seems to be sufficient protection to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. What is not clear, however, is whether it is possible for the virus to bloom in the nose – and sneeze or exhale to infect others – even if antibodies have been mobilized elsewhere in the body to prevent that vaccinated person gets sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine if people who were vaccinated are protected from disease – not to find out if they can still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccines and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to hope that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone – including those who have been vaccinated – must imagine themselves as possible silent shakers and continue to wear a mask. Read more here.
- Will it hurt What are the side effects? The vaccine against Pfizer and BioNTech, like other typical vaccines, is delivered as a shot in the arm. The injection in your arm feels no different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects seems to be higher than with the flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported serious health problems. The side effects, which can be similar to symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and are more likely to occur after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest that some people may need to take a day off because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, around half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headache, chills, and muscle pain. While these experiences are not pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is having a strong response to the vaccine that provides lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a genetic molecule to boost the immune system. This molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse with a cell, allowing the molecule to slide inside. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus that can stimulate the immune system. At any given point in time, each of our cells can contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules that they produce to make their own proteins. As soon as these proteins are made, our cells use special enzymes to break down the mRNA. The mRNA molecules that our cells make can only survive a few minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a little longer, so the cells can make extra viral proteins and trigger a stronger immune response. However, the mRNA can last a few days at most before it is destroyed.
“This will be the greatest operational challenge we have ever faced as a nation,” said Biden, “but we will make it.”
In a tweet on Tuesday, President Trump appeared to blame the governors, saying it was “a matter for states to distribute the vaccines as soon as they are brought into designated areas by the federal government.” But several governors recently said their states were in trouble because they didn’t get enough money from the federal government.
Speaking at the Operation Warp Speed press conference Wednesday, General Gustave F. Perna, the effort’s logistics director, said his team had no clear understanding of why these delays were occurring. He said the CDC is collecting data to better understand the factors driving slow absorption. “To get more specificity at this point after two weeks, I don’t think it’s appropriate,” he said.
However, General Perna pointed out a few possible factors. In addition to the delays in coverage, the holiday season and winter weather have delayed recording. Hospitals and other institutions that administer the vaccines are still learning how to store the cans in very cold temperatures and how to administer them properly. And the states have set aside many doses to be dispensed to their long-term care facilities. This initiative is currently in preparation and is expected to take several months.
So far, most of the vaccines given have been dispensed in hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. Dr. Slaoui and General Perna both said they expected the pace of rollout to accelerate significantly once pharmacies start offering vaccines in their stores.
The federal government has agreements with a number of pharmacy chains – including Costco, Walmart and CVS – to dispense vaccines in their stores and other locations as soon as vaccines become more widely available. To date, 40,000 pharmacy locations have signed up for this program, General Perna said.
“What we should look at is the rate of acceleration over the coming weeks,” said Dr. Slaoui, “and I hope it’s going in the right direction.”