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What is driving the disparities in vaccine distribution?

There have been more than 40 million Pfizer and Moderna vaccine doses delivered around the U.S. thus far, with more than half of those administered. But while the pace has increased, the rates of vaccination vary widely by states and counties. Dr. Jennifer Kates, senior vice president and director of global health at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There has been some better news about the pandemic of late.

    More than two-thirds of states are reporting a decline in the number of new cases. The country is averaging 170,000 new cases a day over the last week. More than 130,000 people are hospitalized. And vaccine distribution has improved some.

    But, as concerns over new variants of the virus loom, Amna Nawaz looks at how far we still have to go with vaccinations.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, so far, there have been more 40 million doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines delivered around the country. More than half, about 22 million, according to Bloomberg's vaccine tracker, have been administered to people.

    And the pace has increased to more than 1.1 million shots a day over the past week. Now, as a whole, the country has given out nearly seven doses for every 100 people, again, according to Bloomberg. But the rates of vaccination and just how much supply is going out vary widely by state, city or county.

    As you can see on this map, states like West Virginia, with darker shading, have the highest percentage of vaccines given out. The lighter colors around much of the U.S. reflect lower rates of distribution.

    So, what's driving these disparities? And what does mean for the country as a whole?

    Jen Kates of the Kaiser Family Foundation joins us again to dig deeper into all of this.

    Jen Kates, welcome back to the "NewsHour," and thanks for being here.

    Let's start with these differences we're seeing state by state. Broadly speaking, why are some states so much better at getting the vaccine that they have out the door and into people's arms than other states?

  • Jen Kates:

    It is good to be here.

    I think what we're seeing right now, if you look across the country, it's a pretty complicated labyrinth. And it's different everywhere, so there is no similar experience happening in any county, really, compared to the next county.

    And part of the challenges that states are — we're starting at very different places, and are dealing with a whole range of issues to try to figure out the most complex mass vaccination campaign ever. And we're already acting — operating from a deficit of having a lot of challenges just dealing with COVID.

    So, what we are now seeing is states pushing out doses to different eligibility groups, using different systems to alert people. And it's pretty complicated.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, that first eligibility group, the folks who live in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, there's a federal program, right, partnering with CVS and Walgreens to administer those shots.

    Governor Pritzker of Illinois was asked about why his state is lagging behind getting the supply that they have out the door. He blames that program. He says they have removed hundreds of thousands of doses from our state's supply and they are slow to deliver them.

    Is that a problem you have been seeing in other places?

  • Jen Kates:

    In some places, there have been complaints about how slow that program has been. In others, it's not clear where the bottleneck is, but there are bottlenecks.

    And I think it's just symptomatic that this rollout has not been smooth yet. Hopefully, it will get smoother. But there's been a lot of catchup trying — being played. And with that program, which is a federal program that most, but not all long-term care facilities are participating in, some are well along the way, and others are really lagging, for a whole variety of reasons.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the other thing we're hearing a lot about is vaccine shortage, people saying they are going to run out of supply soon. Why is that? Are the pharmaceutical companies not making enough, or is the federal government not distributing them fast enough?

  • Jen Kates:

    There is definitely a supply issue.

    And I think what we are seeing right now is a short-term challenge with that, where the amount of doses that's being provided to states is just not enough to vaccinate all of the eligible groups that they are trying to reach.

    And states, as you probably know, are expanding who is eligible, so they are casting a wider net, but they have limited supply. Part of that is the delivery schedule of these vaccines. They're not due to deliver the first tranche, big tranche, until the end of March, yet there's many, many more people eligible now.

    So, that is a big short-term issue. And even in the long term, there could be some supply challenges.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Biden said today, when asked about a timeline, the goal for them when they came in was 100 million shots in the first 100 days.

    He said today they think they can ramp that up to 150 million shots. And by their timeline, he said the country could be well on its way to herd immunity by the summer. Based on the production and distribution you have seen so far, do you think that is a reasonable goal?

  • Jen Kates:

    I think the first part, the ramping up to 1.5 million a day, is possible, and getting to vaccinate many more people than the original goal. I think that original goal was a bit of a floor. I mean, the pace is picking up.

    But the — getting to herd immunity by the summer, that is going to be tough. Part of the challenge here is, unless there is another vaccine that is authorized, which could be around the corner, or the federal government is able to get more vaccines, we may not have enough yet to actually reach the number of people who will need to be vaccinated.

    So, in addition to the pace needing to pick up, there may be a supply challenge at the end there. I think it's going to be a stretch.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I have to ask you about something else, because, with all the focus on the vaccine, something else that a World Health Organization official said today caught my attention.

    He said, if countries bet everything on the COVID-19 vaccine, they are going to lose, in other words, saying you have to keep doing the testing and the distancing and the tracing that the U.S. has not been good at so far.

    Without those things in place, are we working against the efficacy of the vaccine?

  • Jen Kates:

    Yes, I think the lesson we learned here is that the basic public health interventions that work, testing, masking, social distancing, are still going to be needed, and they are going to be needed now and, to some extent, later.

    And if we don't heed that lesson, we are going to be in a challenged place. Already, there are examples in the United States of counties or cities having to take staff from testing, COVID testing, to deploy them to COVID vaccination.

    That is really not the best way to achieve the goal here. And vaccines are going to make a huge difference in all of our lives but they are not going to be the only thing here. And we could be in a lot of trouble if we forget that lesson.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's a big, big challenge ahead.

    Jen Kates of the Kaiser Family Foundation, thanks for joining us.

  • Jen Kates:

    Thank you.

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