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As COVID-19 Cases Surge, Critics Say Vaccinations Must Speed Up

NOEL KING, HOST:

A question that is on a lot of people's minds, why is this country's vaccine campaign moving so slowly and can we do anything about it? NPR health correspondent, Rob Stein has been looking into that. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So let's start with the latest. We hear things are going slowly. How slowly? What's happening?

STEIN: So, you know, the CDC says more than 17 million doses of vaccine have been distributed to the states and more than 4.8 million shots have been given so far. And now that may sound like a lot, but remember, the Trump administration has been promising a lot more. That at least 20 million people would be vaccinated by now. And we've all heard the stories about the frustration and the confusion out there. Here's Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.

ASHISH JHA: Obviously, the rollout is not going particularly well. And it's really kind of stunning how poor this rollout of the vaccine has gone.

STEIN: You know, and Dr. Jha and others say the country needs to vaccinate as many people as fast as possible. The virus is spreading faster than ever. Hospitals are getting overwhelmed. More people are dying every day than ever. And now, there's this new variant of the virus that appears to spread even quicker.

KING: Because everyone understands the urgency here, I am compelled to ask, what is the problem?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, to some degree, the sluggish rollout is understandable. This is arguably the most complicated mass vaccination campaign in U.S. history. And part of the problem is, you know, expectations. The Trump administration promised more than it was prepared to deliver. So officials on the frontline say things are probably going as well as can be expected under the circumstances.

But Jha and others say things could be going way better if there was just much better planning. The federal government spent billions to produce the vaccines in record time but should have been just much more aggressive about making sure states could hit the ground running, you know, including pushing Congress for a lot more money a lot sooner. I talked about this with Saad Omer. He runs the Yale Institute for Global Health.

SAAD OMER: A rational, sane, planned process should have started unfolding in July, when we knew that we had vaccines going into phase-three trials. There's no excuse to wait for a vaccine. You know, we have taken off and we are trying to ride a flight plan after takeoff.

STEIN: You know, in some ways, it's like deja vu all over again with the testing situation, where the federal government, you know, basically kind of punted to each state to figure it out on their own. And the U.S. ended up with a patchwork system that's basically been playing catch-up ever since.

KING: What needs to happen now to stop playing catch-up?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah. So if Congress just agreed to give the states billions to help with the vaccines, and that should help. But the experts I've been talking to say the federal government should be much more aggressive about helping states ramp up and coordinate. You know, make sure they have enough money and staff and logistical support to deliver the shots and keep track of who's getting vaccinated, especially now that people are starting to come back for their second jabs. Here's Dr. Walter Orenstein from Emory University. He ran the CDC vaccine program for 16 years.

WALTER ORENSTEIN: It's not rocket science, but it is behavioral science, communication science. It's implementation science. We need to do this nationally. And it's very important that the federal government partner, not only with getting vaccines to the states but with helping states to administer the vaccine.

KING: And lastly, what about the incoming administration? What kind of promises are they making?

STEIN: You know, so President-elect Biden is promising to deliver at least 100 million shots in the first 100 days in office. The experts I've been talking to say that's an ambitious goal, but it's not impossible. And you know, officials say it's really important to really do that as fast as they can. In fact, things are so bad that some experts say that the goal should be even maybe double or triple that amount to try to get ahead of this virus, you know, and try to slow it down because things are so bad right now.

KING: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

Thanks, Rob.

STEIN: You bet, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.