The federal government “overpromised and underdelivered”on coronavirus vaccine expectations, leaving states understaffed and without enough money to immunize their residents quickly, state health officials said Thursday.
“We overpromised and underdelivered as a nation,” Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health, told a briefing sponsored by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO). “We only got a third of what we thought we were going to get based on the initial modeling.”
The federal government confused states and the public by promising millions more doses than were actually delivered. Operation Warp Speed, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and other top officials initially promised 40 million vaccines would be delivered by the end of December, and first doses given to 20 million people by that time. It took until the first week of January to get 20 million doses distributed, and only about 6 million people have been vaccinated, according to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Stack said the development of multiple vaccines in less than a year was a great achievement.
“Had we just projected realistic quantities, the public wouldn’t have seen this as a shortcoming – we would have recognized it for the incredible accomplishment it was to have even this much vaccine this fast,” Stack said.
This gap between expectations and reality could have implications for public reception of the vaccine program, the officials said.
“I think it’s important not to set unrealistic expectations that then disappoint the public. It could make them become disillusioned with this program,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, secretary of health at the Pennsylvania Department of Health and and president of ASTHO.
“We end up knowing a week or two in advance what the what the possibility is of how much vaccine we’re getting,” she said. “But then the actual amount that is going to be transported often ends up being somewhat different depending upon the variables that Operation Warp Speed has to deal with in terms of manufacturing and how much they get.”
States need more money and more staff, ASTHO members said during the briefing.
Levine said states, cities and territories had been given just $340 million to accomplish the mission right up until the end of the year.
“That is clearly insufficient to accomplishing what we’re trying to accomplish,” Levine said.
President Trump signed a $900 billion stimulus package from Congress on December 27 that includes $8 billion for the coronavirus vaccine rollout, something that health leaders were “absolutely thrilled” with, Levine said.
“Obviously that would have been more helpful a few months ago,” Stack said.
Levine said the money will be “critical for several aspects of our response,” including contracting with companies to set up community vaccine clinics that are being planned, and to create communications plans.
“One of the frustrations we’ve had, I think those of us who are state officials, is that there was no funding, dedicated funding, of any substance or size provided for this project and we’ve been saying that for many months before we got to this point,” Stack said.
He said that there had been great funding for all stages of the vaccine process until it came to administering the vaccine.
Stack also spoke about the federal pharmacy partnership with retail pharmacies Walgreens and CVS, who are contracted to vaccinate those in long term care facilities. While he said he was grateful for the partnership, “if we can add to their man and women power to do it more quickly while still doing it safely, then we’re certainly going to look for opportunities to do that.”
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Health care systems are strained, Stack noted. “There’s not a lot of idle health care workers sitting by to draw upon, so I think that’s another challenge all of us face as we try to scale up such an enormous vaccination program,” he said.