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Deadline Arrives For States To Order COVID-19 Vaccine


On this first Friday of December, news of the pandemic is as hopeful as it's been all year and also as grim as it's been all year. More than 200,000 people in the United States tested positive for coronavirus just yesterday - a single day. We're at a rate of two deaths per minute, give or take. For thousands, it's too late for the vaccine, but there is progress on that vaccine. And on this day, states face a deadline. They have to preorder their first shipments. NPR health reporter Pien Huang joins us now. Good morning.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's that deadline mean exactly?

HUANG: Well, the deadline means that states have until 8 p.m. Eastern tonight to tell the government where they want those first boxes to go. These boxes will contain 975 doses each of the Pfizer vaccine, and they would need to be kept supercold. The CDC has been advising that they should go to health care workers and people who live in long-term care facilities. So most of those shipments are probably going to large hospitals first.

INSKEEP: OK, 975 doses per box, and then we're talking about millions of doses over time. This is a big project. How's the process getting started?

HUANG: Yeah. Well, it's been a little rocky so far as states are saying that they're not getting as many vaccines as they thought. Maine, for instance, said that they're getting 12,000 vaccines in that first shipment when they thought they were getting three times as much. And it's not completely clear why that's happening. I asked the Department of Health and Human Services, and they basically said states will get more vaccines soon. But the government does estimate that there will be 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine available by the end of the year.

INSKEEP: OK. Wow. Let's just dwell on that for a second, 20 million doses by the end of the year. Does that actually mean that millions of people will be getting shots in the arm by the end of this year?

HUANG: Well, they're not guaranteeing an exact number, but the hope is that there will be a lot. You know, that Pfizer vaccine needs to be used or stored within five days. And so states really want to make sure that those first batches go to places that can immunize a lot of people quickly.

INSKEEP: Yeah. You'd hate for it to go bad while it was waiting for someone. Remind us of the nationwide situation as we wait for vaccines to arrive.

HUANG: Yeah. Well, the numbers keep climbing. You know, the CDC said that this COVID wave we're in has not yet peaked. And as you mentioned earlier, you know, in the past few days, we're seeing more than 200,000 people a day newly diagnosed with coronavirus. And in those same couple of days, we're averaging two deaths every minute of the day. One thing that's different about this COVID wave compared to previous ones is that it's happening all over the country at once. Here's CDC director Robert Redfield.


ROBERT REDFIELD: So we are at a very critical time right now about being able to maintain the resilience of our health care system.

HUANG: He means that our hospitals are under a lot of stress. More than 100,000 people are hospitalized with COVID right now. And that's the highest it's been this whole pandemic. There's no leeway to shift doctors and resources from one hot spot to another because the hot spots are basically everywhere.

INSKEEP: And in about a minute, we're going to hear from the president of a hospital system who is managing all of that. But first, let's talk about the efforts to keep people out of hospitals, if it can be done. California has announced new stay-at-home orders. What are they doing?

HUANG: Yeah. So the concern in California is that they're running out of space in intensive care units. These are the specialized hospital beds that are reserved for the sickest patients. And yesterday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that when ICUs are more than 85% full, regions of the state will have to shut down. You know, these regions include places like the Bay Area, Greater Sacramento, Southern California. Here's Governor Newsom.


GAVIN NEWSOM: The bottom line is, if we don't act now, our hospital system will be overwhelmed. If we don't act now, we'll continue to see a death rate climb.

HUANG: No regions have full ICUs yet, but they're expected to get there in the next few weeks. The governor said it's like California's pulling an emergency brake. And many states are watching California right now, hoping not to have to go into that kind of lockdown before they can get widespread access to the vaccine.

INSKEEP: NPR's Pien Huang, thanks so much.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.