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Glacial pace of the U.S. inoculation campaign raises questions about priorities

Operation Warp Speed may have produced effective COVID vaccines in record time, but administering them has been another matter. Just 9 million of the more than 25 million doses distributed have been given out, according to the CDC. But the Trump administration on Tuesday made big changes to the program. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, joins John Yang to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Operation Warp Speed may have produced effective COVID vaccines in record time, but administering them has been another matter.

    The CDC says only about nine million of the more than 25 million doses distributed have actually been given.

    As John Yang reports, the Trump administration today made big changes to the program.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced the changes. The administration will begin to release all available doses of the vaccine. It had been holding back roughly half because these are two-shot vaccines. But officials are now confident that the supply is sufficient.

    It's urging states to vaccinate anyone 65 or older and anyone with an underlying medical condition that could threaten their life if they get COVID. It will send more doses to states that are vaccinating people more efficiently. And it will encourage states to set up more places to get the vaccine.

    All this comes in advance of what's expected to be an announcement from president-elect Joe Biden of his vaccination plans.

    Jennifer Nuzzo is an epidemiologist at the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. And she joins us now.

    Thanks so much for being with us.

    Why make these changes, or why was it necessary for the officials to make these changes now? And were these the right changes to make?

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Well, I think these changes reflect the fact that people are frustrated that vaccines aren't rolling out as quickly as had been promised.

    You know, initially, we had heard that, by the end of the year, 20 million Americans would be vaccinated. And we are very far away from having achieved that goal.

    And so the approach that was initially taken, which would be to give the vaccine to the highest priority group, I think, is still an important goal, but it's a very slow, methodical, step-wise goal, and it's not going to achieve the vaccination numbers that I think people were very much expecting.

  • John Yang:

    Is there a risk, or are there potential downsides to this new strategy?

  • Jennifer Nuzzo:

    : Sure.

    Well, one of the risks is just that, as we open it up broadly, we lose the ability to target what still limited vaccine supplies we have for the people that we think are either at highest risk due to exposure. And you can understand why that was an initial priority in a lot of places.

    Yet, at the same time, there are still a lot of people, particularly those 65 and older, who are at greatest risk of becoming hospitalized and dying from this virus. So, you can see the real tension and tradeoffs there.

  • John Yang:

    You know, we're sort of at an inflection point with the change of administrations, a chance to sort of rethink this whole strategy, and perhaps make even bigger changes.

    Are there things in particular that you would urge the Biden administration or his people who are coming in to think about approaching this program differently?

  • Jennifer Nuzzo:

    : Well, up until now, we have basically just focused on developing the vaccine.

    And the federal response was to develop the vaccine and just sort of hand it off to the states, give them some high-level guidance, but basically say, good luck. That clearly has not achieved what we need it to achieve.

    And so now I think there is an opportunity to say, how can we have a national strategy? What federal resources can be brought to bear to help states with this very audacious goal of trying to conduct the largest vaccination campaign this country has ever done in modern history?

    So, I think recognizing that the federal government can't just take a light touch on this issue and really needs to dig in and help states, because the sooner we get all states protected, the sooner our lives can get back to normal, we can restore our economy, et cetera.

  • John Yang:

    You work at — with health care workers at John Hopkins.

    And I wonder if you can help laypeople like myself understand what seems to be sort of an oddity, the fact that there are, at least anecdotally, a large number of health care workers who are reluctant to take this vaccine. Help us explain that.

  • Jennifer Nuzzo:

    : Sure.

    So, this is something that we see every year. Health care workers, though they work in facilities that are surrounded by science, they're regular people, too, and they are subject to the same disinformation campaigns that are waging against the American public to try to discourage them against getting vaccinated.

    So, it's very much something that we have to — should have anticipated and should have planned for how to boost confidence and to educate and to encourage people, not only about the importance of getting vaccinated, the safety of vaccines, and the benefits of getting vaccinated, but also, again, about the threat that this virus poses.

    And that's another dimension that is somewhat new. Seasonal influenza isn't typically politicized at the same level that COVID-19 has. And you have people who just openly deny the existence of the virus and deny it as a threat to them.

    And if people fall into those categories, you can imagine why they might not be so willing to get vaccinated.

  • John Yang:

    And how concerned are you that, a year into this or almost a year into this, this nation still hasn't been able to sort of stem the roller coaster effect of cases, of new cases?

  • Jennifer Nuzzo:

    : We are at the worst point that we have ever been. The case numbers continue to accelerate.

    The U.S. adds about a million cases at least every four days. So that is extraordinary growth in cases. And you would think, by this point, we would have a better strategy for trying to control the virus. It's great that we have vaccines. It's a scientific gift that we have a vaccine now, but, as you can see, the vaccines are rolling out slowly.

    And, in the meantime, we still have to use the other measures that we have been trying to use for the past year to control the spread. We have to increase our testing. We have to make sure everybody who tests positive is able to stay home, so that they don't infect others. We need to do more contact tracing, so that we understand in what environments this virus is transmitting.

    And we need to make sure that anyone who's a contact of a case is able to stay home. Those efforts have ground to a halt as of late. And that's a really worrisome situation to be in, given the case growth that we have seen, and given the fact that we haven't yet seen the full effects of what the holiday gatherings will likely due to the acceleration of our case numbers.

  • John Yang:

    Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, thank you very much.

  • Jennifer Nuzzo:

    : Thanks for having me.

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