Biden announces distribution of more COVID-19 vaccine supplies

States eager to get more residents vaccinated

Christopher Rodriguez, director of the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, receives a COVID-19 vaccine administered by nurse Rishea Casselle at the Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill Medical Center in Washington on Jan. 25, 2021.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Christopher Rodriguez, director of the District of Columbia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, receives a COVID-19 vaccine administered by nurse Rishea Casselle at the Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill Medical Center in Washington on Jan. 25, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 26, 2021 at 5:09pm

President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that COVID-19 vaccine supplies to states will increase by 16 percent next week, from 8.6 million doses to 10 million doses per week.

"This is going to allow millions more people to get vaccinated," Biden said in a national address. "We have a long way to go, though."

It’s not clear the boost will be enough to satisfy states clamoring for more shots.

“So we get another 1,000 [doses] a day? That’s not going to make much of a difference to us at all,” Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said at a separate news conference. 

The Biden team also said the Department of Health and Human Services will give states a three-week notice on how much vaccine supply to expect, rather than notifying them week by week, to allow for more advance planning. 

Senior administration officials also told reporters that negotiations are underway to purchase an additional 100 million doses each of the vaccine made by Moderna and another by Pfizer-BioNTech. The new deals would bring the entire U.S. purchase order to 600 million doses, enough to vaccinate 300 million people. The terms of the deals are unclear, but an official said the new supply would be available “throughout the summer.”

Weeks into the massive national vaccination effort, states have begun to send the vaccine to more places, including to stadiums. State and local health officials, bracing for challenges, have launched websites where people can make appointments and have dramatically expanded the number of people eligible.

But the biggest unknown, even at the highest levels of officials overseeing the vaccination effort, had been when and how much vaccine supply will become available. 

“I can’t tell you how much vaccine we have,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said in a television interview Sunday.  

“If [states] don’t know how much vaccine they’re getting, not just this week but next week and the week after, they can’t plan,” she said. “They can’t figure out how many sites to roll out, they can’t figure out how many vaccinators that they need, and they can’t figure out how many appointments to make for the public.”

A lack of CDC insight into distribution run by the federal Operation Warp Speed initiative was common under the Trump administration, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. 

Earlier this month, appointments were canceled across the country because of a lack of doses and confusion about when more would arrive. 

“Part of the difficulty is that states don’t know in advance how many vaccines they are going to get. Most states have gotten fewer than they were promised,” said Barry Bloom, a Harvard University expert in immunology. “So we are facing the decisions on phasing — who gets the doses first, second and third — in an era of high expectations and a great deal of uncertainty.”

Under their existing multibillion-dollar federal contracts, Pfizer and Moderna must deliver 200 million doses by the end of March, and another 200 million by July. While the contracts are likely to contain delivery schedules and reporting requirements for delays, the contracts were heavily redacted before being released to the public, advocates say. 

Pfizer will credit a surprise sixth dose in every vial, which can be tricky to extract, toward meeting its commitment to the U.S. government, The New York Times first reported.

CEO Albert Bourla said Tuesday that Pfizer will deliver 120 million doses by the end of March and 200 million doses by the end of May, two months ahead of schedule, because of the extra dose. But some providers are unable to retrieve that sixth dose, so the extra vaccine could be wasted, although the company is counting it toward its obligation.

Even as alarms about shortages ring louder, a CDC tool shows the number of administered vaccines continues to significantly lag distributed vaccines. Some experts are concerned that the data do not reflect a complete picture of vaccinations.

Governors say more vaccine is needed immediately.

“Right now, Maryland is only allocated roughly 10,000 doses per day for the roughly 2 million people who are eligible to receive it just in phase one,” said Hogan. “It is simply an impossibility for all of them to immediately receive it.”

States’ concerns

Governors’ frustrations about a lack of information about vaccine supply mounted especially after the Trump administration acknowledged earlier this month that the U.S. did not have a reserve of second doses.

State officials saw that as a big shift in policy. It came after the Trump administration encouraged states to expand eligibility to millions of people. State officials said they thought larger shipments would be coming, but instead the government had already been sending out its reserve. The week after states had anticipated larger shipments, dozens of state health departments said they would receive about the same number as in the previous week.

In the wake of the announcement, thousands of vaccination appointments were canceled in states including Louisiana, New York, North Carolina and Virginia. 

Massachusetts said Monday that it will soon build enough vaccination sites to administer nearly 250,000 vaccinations per week, including at a 65,000-seat arena, but it wasn’t clear it would receive enough supply to do so. 

“We’re setting up the capacity to administer far more doses than we are currently receiving or are projected to receive from the feds,” Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said. “We think it’s better to overprepare.”

Minnesota has taken the same approach of ramping up regardless of federal vaccine supply, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz indicated Monday. 

“No matter how many doses we get from the federal government, whether it’s a few thousand or many more, we’re going to get the vaccine we have quickly into Minnesotans’ arms,” Walz said. 

The Biden administration has pledged to launch another 100 administration sites with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the next month and mobilize the National Guard to help deliver the vaccine to more places. 

Some Republican governors have been resistant to that plan, insisting that the main barrier to vaccination is not having enough vaccine. 

Nebraska GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday that the state has the capacity to distribute the vaccine, citing a mass vaccination push at a 15,000-seat arena in Lincoln on Friday.   

“In a matter of four hours, they vaccinated 2,400 people,” Ricketts said. “When you give us the resources like enough vaccine, local public health departments like Lincoln-Lancaster will figure out how to get it done.”

The shortage has led to confusion among people who believe they are eligible for vaccinations but cannot access doses. 

Alabama’s public health department sought to temper expectations set by the federal Department of Health and Human Services on how soon 65-year-olds would be eligible and said it was sticking with earlier CDC guidance that put essential workers first.

“At the final Operation Warp Speed briefing on January 12, 2021, spokespersons for HHS recommended that states expand age groups for vaccination to persons 65 and above,” the department said in a press release Monday. “However … vaccine supply is limited and does not meet demand at this time for the current numbers of persons identified as healthcare workers, first responders, fire, police, and persons 75 and above.”

District of Columbia officials said Monday that although the city broke up broad phases into specific “tiers,” there is still not enough supply to cover any specific tier. Each must be sliced for further specificity. 

“I want every D.C. resident to hear me loud and clear. … We simply do not have enough vaccine,” LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the District of Columbia Department of Health, said Monday while donning a mask with the words “DC needs more vaccine.”

“Our goal of creating tiers within our phases was that we would be able to fully implement a tier of a phase, but we can’t even manage to do that with the dismal amount of vaccines that we are receiving,” she said.