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As Biden gears up to bolster vaccination, logistical challenges remain

President Biden has set a goal to vaccinate 100 million Americans in his first 100 days even as federal and state officials grapple with logistical challenges and the absence of a national inoculation plan. ProPublica reporter Caroline Chen joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the confusion surrounding the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in the nation.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more on the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and the confusion surrounding the state and local vaccination process, I spoke with Caroline Chen, who covers public health for ProPublica.

    Caroline, when we see numbers across the states right now, there's a massive gap between the number of vaccines that states have and the number of vaccines people have in them. Why is this happening?

  • Caroline Chen:

    So it is a rapidly evolving situation. I think the pace of administration is rapidly rising. And what we are hearing from a lot of states right now is that they're running out of vaccine. So that is changing. I definitely think that there are still doses on shelves. That is a problem.

    The question is, where are they? And one of the big issues that I think that we've had throughout this vaccine rollout is just a lack of transparency and a lack of visibility. There's lack of ability for both the federal level and the state level to just know where everything is. And even when I talk to state officials, they don't have that clarity. And that's a huge problem.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what is the federal government's role in this? How do they figure out what state is going to have how many vaccines on what day?

  • Caroline Chen:

    Operation Warp Speed under the Trump administration had done allocations by per capita basis, 18 and up. And it remains to be seen what the Biden administration is going to do.

    But we just reported at ProPublica that Operation Warp Speed was operating on this week by week basis and just operating on a week by week basis for a national vaccination campaign is so hard because you have no forward planning capability. And then that rolls down to the hospitals and vaccination sites where they're sitting around saying, well, what am I going to get this week?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So it was the government's rationale then that I just want to speak for vaccines that exist versus projecting things that might not exist because we still are dependent on the manufacturers not having any problems.

  • Caroline Chen:

    If we look back, for example, to H1N1 and that vaccination campaign, a big problem there was overpromising a supply. I can imagine that they did not want to have a similar situation where they said, we promise you that you're going to have X amount every week and then the inability to deliver would have looked really bad.

    So, you know, this is really a tricky thing to do right. You both need to give states planning abilities and of course, you don't want to overpromise at the same time.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now, in all of the moves that President Biden has initiated in the first couple of days he's been in office, there has been talk about the Defense Production Act. Can the administration call up one of these manufacturers and say stop producing some of your other medicines, produce more of this vaccine?

  • Caroline Chen:

    I have not heard that they're planning to use the DPA with asking the manufacturers to sort of stop production of other items because these factories are quite specialized for the type of vaccines that they're going to make. So you can't turn over sort of a pill stamping factory for an mRNA and a vaccine overnight necessarily.

    On paper, both Moderna and Pfizer have been contracted to produce 100 million doses each by the end of the first quarter. So that's you know, if they deliver, it is quite a lot of doses. And then we probably have Johnson and Johnson's vaccine coming along as well, which would give us a significant number of doses.

    So I think the first priority for the Biden campaign is actually more on the logistics side. While, of course, we would all love to have more supply, a lot of the logistical ends, the last mile, are still a big problem right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Another concern that people have right now is with all of the news of different variants of the virus, there's one in L.A., there's one in the Bay Area, there's one in the U.K. and of course, South Africa. This is causing concern for everyone. Is the shot that I'm lining up to get, is that going to protect me?

  • Caroline Chen:

    So, so far, we have no reason to believe that the vaccines are not going to be efficacious against the different variants that we're seeing.

    Epidemiologists, some of them have argued that if we have limited contact tracing resources, which we absolutely do right now in the U.S., that they should prioritize any cases that are the U.K. variant. We have found a few in the country. So we should prioritize those cases because they will spread faster. And then, of course, there is now more than ever the argument that you should not be a case, any type of case.

    Viruses just mutate. That's what they do. And every time they mutate, which means you're a case, you're giving it a chance to mutate, you're giving it more chances to mutate away from the type of coronavirus that we know that the vaccine works against.

    So our job as individuals is to not be a case. If you're worried about variants, that's your job. Don't be a case. Don't give it a chance to mutate.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Caroline Chen of ProPublica, thanks so much.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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