President-elect Joe Biden will accelerate the release of COVID-19 vaccines and send out most of the federal government available supply, his transition team said Friday, after states clamored for more help in battling a coronavirus surge that is toppling records daily.
The promise from Biden – who is set to take office Jan. 20 – would reverse a current Trump Administration policy to hold back half of the vaccine stockpile to ensure that recommended second doses are available. Biden’s team cited its medical experts’ determination that the country can accelerate first-dose shipments and ramp up production so that the second doses are ready when needed.
A statement from Biden says the incoming president “believes the government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in Americans’ arms now.”
The announcement comes after Democratic governors from eight states – including California Gov. Gavin Newsom – wrote a letter urging the Trump Administration to change its policy of reserving vaccine doses. But many of those states, and particularly California, will need to accelerate greatly their own efforts in order to get this additional vaccine into the arms of their residents.
At his news conference Friday, Newsom restated a goal for California to administer 1 million doses by the end of next week. So far, the rollout in both the state and the country has been hampered by supply-chain and communications issues. In addition, states have faced hesitation by a significant number of healthcare workers – who are among the first prioritized – to take the vaccine.
Taking the vaccines is not mandated by hospitals, so they have been forced to employ strategies like offering material incentives. Newsom this week also widened the scope of healthcare workers eligible for the first wave of vaccines in hopes of using current supplies more effectively.
“We’re in a scarcity frame now… we needed to loosen up those tiers and we have now, so we’re going to see faster administration,” Newsom said, adding that he welcomed the news of Biden’s announcement to release more doses to states.
However, Michael Pratt, a spokesperson for Operation Warp Speed - the Trump Administration’s vaccine initiative – released a statement sharply criticizing Mr. Biden’s approach.
“If President-elect Biden is calling for the distribution of vaccines knowing that there would not be a second dose available, that decision is without science or data and is contrary to the FDA’s approved label,” Pratt said.
Nationwide, 21.4 million doses have been distributed, but only 5.9 million, or 28%, have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Santa Clara County, having drawn national praise for its leading efforts to institute wide shelter-in-place measures but also notoriety for a hospital outbreak blamed on a worker in an inflatable Christmas-tree costume, held a news conference Friday urging all health-care personnel to get their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
The county has administered approximately 47,000 of its some 110,000 allotted first doses, according to county officials, but still has more than 90,000 health care workers who have yet to receive any vaccine. About 17,000 hospital workers will receive their second dose this week. For context, approximately 26,000 county residents have gained at least temporary immunity by contracting the virus since the first doses went into arms on Dec. 17.
“We are trying to get through Phase 1A as fast as we can,” county Public Health Officer Dr. Sarah Cody said. “It’s an all hands on deck effort.”
Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, the county’s COVID-19 testing officer, said he hopes to enter the next phase of vaccinations, which will include older Californians and teachers, “sometime by the end of the month.” County officials also said they hope to ramp up vaccinations to 6,000 a day by the end of next week.
To reach the county’s desired herd immunity threshold – immunity among at least 85% of residents – it would take some 1.6 million inoculations. At the current pace, it would take over two years to reach that goal. At a rate of 6,000 per day, it would take about nine months.
Coronavirus statistics show there is no time to waste, with state data indicating the virus killed more than 1,000 Californians on Wednesday and Thursday, the state’s deadliest two-day period of the pandemic. And the consensus among health-care leaders and experts is that it’s going to get much worse throughout January, owing in part to the anticipated impact of holiday gatherings just beginning to show up in hospital admissions.
“We are standing on a beach and watching a tsunami approach,” Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the California Hospital Association, said in a Friday conference call. “We do anticipate the worst of this is yet to hit in a week or 10 days, and it’s expected to continue into the month of February.”
It has gotten to the point where county hospital systems are planning for emergency room directors to ration hospital care depending on the severity of injury or disease. Earlier this week, many systems called on people to call 911 only if there is an acute emergency to relieve instances where emergency rooms have been so full that ambulances were left idling for hours to admit their patients. And as Newsom expanded eligibility for the vaccines, his administration also began issuing waivers for hospitals to increase nurse-to-patient ratios, which critics said was trading one health-care strain for another.
Coyle added that unlike in previous surges, the downslope of the bell curve is nowhere in sight.
“We’re only continuing to see a rise. We’re not seeing that declination we saw in those previous surges, ”she said. “We’re going to have to pull all of this together very quickly to stretch and maximize the capacity we already have.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.