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One year into COVID-19 in the U.S.: vaccine rollout, hesitancy, and supply

One year after the first COVID-19 shutdowns began in the U.S., over 500,000 people have died from the disease, businesses have opened and closed, and several vaccines have emerged. President Biden has set a May 1 deadline for universal vaccine access; currently, over 10 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. Caroline Chen of ProPublica has been reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic since its earliest days. She joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the latest.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One year ago the country was starting the lockdowns that followed the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and the deaths from COVID-19 that have now reached more than half a million.

    We often turned to ProPublica reporter Caroline Chen throughout this crisis–and on this weekend last year she and I were talking about testing.

    (clip) I think even as of this week, we have continued to hear Americans say we want to be tested. We can't get tested. And to hear doctors saying we want to get these patients tested and we can't. And that's tremendously frustrating and anxiety-provoking. And I think it's important not just on the individual level because of that anxiety.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Caroline, a year ago, we were in a fancy studio, I used to wear ties, and we were talking about how this new coronavirus was going to impact us. And at the time, you were saying it's changing by the hour.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Yeah. And truly, in the past year, we have learned so much as scientists, as a nation. When we have a new virus, we have to learn and adapt with the science. And I think that there have been ways in which we have done that well as a nation. And there have been ways at which we have not communicated the changing science well to the public and realized that we were really just not as prepared as we hoped we could be.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    No disputing that it was an amazing feat of science and logistics to create a vaccine around the entire planet at the same time, so fast, given. Now, that last mile, detail a couple of the things that we didn't really think through about just getting someone access to the vaccine.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Yeah. So I think there's some good news here first, so that I think that in many places the vaccine rollout is starting to pick up speed and that we now have, in many places, more supply than even administrative capacity. So know in the US, I think there are many reasons to be happy.

    However, I think that there are, you know, as you said, people who aren't finding it that easy to get the vaccine, even though they are eligible. And so, a piece that Mariam Jameel and I are working on together, we're looking at structural barriers to access that are, whether intentionally or not, most likely unintentionally, have been built into vaccination sites. So there are things, whether it's language, people with disabilities often struggle, people who struggle to use the Internet. And we've talked before, I think, Hari, about vaccine hesitancy. And increasingly as I talk to experts and to doctors, a lot of them point out that people who are vaccine-hesitant, you know, that very broad phrase, are not necessarily anti-vax. We just have questions and maybe want to know more about the data. So having access to a doctor, particularly maybe one who speaks their language, who they don't have to pay to ask those questions to, may be a big way to reduce the hurdles to get more people vaccinated, where, maybe, look, I just want to know more about how safe it is to get to the vaccine.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So where are we in terms of vaccines now?

  • Caroline Chen:

    So when I looked yesterday, nearly 10% of the population has gone into full regimens of fully vaccinated. So we are starting to get to sort of what I would consider like significant numbers, which is great. In terms of supply, this is sort of a constantly moving target as the US government continues to work out contracts with the manufacturers and sort of, kind of pushes on them. So what I think we can confidently say is, based on the contracts that have already been put out there, that we should have enough supply for all Americans by at least June. And I think that the Biden administration has been pushing on them, for example, by getting Merck to help make the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

    But again, as you talked about, you know, vaccines produced does not mean vaccines in arms. There's so many complicated components here. So having supply is, of course, the first thing. But then we have to be able to have administrative capacity. So the logistics of administering these barriers we just talked about and then there's still significant cohorts of people, particularly a static part has actually been Republicans that continue to be very hesitant and not wanting to get the vaccine. So there are advocacy groups that are working on breaking down that sort of hesitancy and working to make it so that once the supply is there, that everybody will actually feel comfortable getting it. And then eventually we'll have to finish the trials in teens and younger children for it to even be available for them. So there are still groups of people, I think, that we have to work on to eventually catch up to the supply.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Caroline Chen of ProPublica, thanks so much.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Thanks for having me.

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