Despite the rapid expansion of COVID-19 vaccinations to senior citizens across the U.S. leading to bottlenecks and system crashes, Operation Warp Speed scientific head Dr. Moncef Slaoui said on Monday that he is still “confident that we should be able to immunize the overwhelming large majority of the American population by the middle of 2021.”
Slaoui made the comment on “Mornings with Maria,” while also acknowledging that uptake of COVID-19 immunizations has been “slower” than expected.
He noted that it’s important to listen and learn from the challenges.
States across the country have been faced with challenges with the expansion of COVID-19 vaccinations to senior citizens.
Mississippi's Health Department stopped accepting new appointments the same day it began taking them because of a "monumental surge" in requests. Last Tuesday and Wednesday, people had to wait hours to book vaccination appointments through a state website or a toll-free number and many reported being booted off the site because of technical issues, which forced them to start over.
Initially health care workers and nursing home patients had been given priority in most places around the country, but amid irritation over the slow rollout, states have expanded access to vaccines to many of the nation's 54 million senior citizens.
Despite the issues, over the weekend Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said President-elect Joe Biden’s goal of delivering 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine within the first 100 days of his presidency “is absolutely a doable thing,” Reuters reported, citing Fauci’s appearance on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
Slaoui agreed with Fauci on Monday explaining that “our plan has always been to be able to produce and distribute 200 million doses of vaccine between the middle of December and the end of the month of March, in the first quarter of the year 2021, and that’s enough vaccine doses to immunize fully 100 million Americans with two doses of vaccine.”
“Clearly the uptake of immunization has been slower than hoped for and expected and we really look forward to the improvements that doing and learning by doing in the various jurisdictions will bring,” he continued.
“And already we can see that there’s an acceleration of uptake to about 800,000 to 900,000 people immunized every day.”
So far about 12.3 million Americans have received the first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines with more than 31 million doses distributed, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Fauci reportedly said on Sunday that there will be an increase in the pace of vaccinations when two new vaccines under development by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson will be considered for approval by U.S. regulators, which he said could happen within a period of a week or a couple of weeks.
On Monday, Slaoui also responded to a Wall Street Journal article titled, “Covid-19 Vaccines Are Getting Stuck at the Last Step.”
The article noted that the federal government shipped millions of doses to states around the country, with states establishing the criteria for who should get the vaccine first, however it has been up to local health departments, hospitals and other providers to manage the logistics and many have been unable to do so effectively.
“The result is an erratic and disjointed process that is causing frustration and confusion around the country,” The Wall Street Journal reported, citing several examples, including a man in South Texas who slept in his car for two consecutive nights so he wouldn’t lose his place in a line of hundreds of people at a mass-vaccination event.
When asked if the federal government should have taken on a stronger role with the states and local governments to make sure that the process was more efficient, Slaoui acknowledged that “the challenges have been many,” but noted that “it’s always easier to do the Monday morning quarterbacking.”“We have gone so fast that maybe indeed the jurisdiction[s], the hospitals, very local entities have not been able to ramp up their capabilities in order to immunize with the vaccine,” Slaoui said.
He noted that “we only learned that the vaccines were effective early November,” they were approved the next month and immediately the vaccines began to be shipped out with the administration being able to deliver on the distribution “with 99.99% precision.”
He went on to point out that “we worked with the state health departments, the various jurisdictions, we went and visited them and discussed exactly how things will happen and they executed on the aspect of ordering vaccine doses and having them shipped to the exact locations.”
Slaoui said the more than 31 million doses of vaccine were shipped to more than 14,000 locations.
“Indeed the last immunization didn’t take place as well as we were hoping for,” Slaoui said. “Frankly, the approach we had taken was that the states will actually manage that step.”
He noted that he didn’t initially get feedback from states that challenges were expected.
“Now there are challenges,” he acknowledged. “I think the right thing to do is listen to them, learn from them, and support them and we look forward, within the operation, to continue helping with the new administration to accelerate that in whatever practical, specific proposal[s] for help are.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.