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What's The State Of COVID-19 Vaccination In The U.S.?


The U.S. is now a few weeks into its massive COVID-19 vaccination campaign, and it's been going a little more slowly than federal officials had promised. Joining us now to talk about solutions for speeding it up is NPR's Pien Huang. Hey, Pien.


CHANG: Hey. So when you scan some of these headlines describing the vaccination campaign, you see words like nightmare and disaster. But we're also hearing from people on the frontlines that it's all going as well as can be expected. So how would you characterize it?

HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I would say, you know, based on talking with more than a dozen health officials and experts around the country this week, that the effort so far is relatively slow, but it's not a complete disaster. Steven Stack is a top health official in Kentucky. And here's what he said at a press conference today.


STEVEN STACK: I don't think it is a fair representation to describe our present state as a failure. I think, rather, it was rather predictable and inevitable.

HUANG: Now, according to CDC, about 17 million vaccines have been shipped out, and about a third of them have been administered. Although, I should also point out that there's a reporting delay. It does take a few days from when someone gets a shot to when it actually shows up on the CDC's website.

CHANG: OK. That makes sense. And I would also think that there are a lot of things, understandably, that have to get worked out when you launch a massive vaccination campaign.

HUANG: Absolutely. Yeah. I spoke with Jinlene Chan. She's a health official in Maryland. And she told me that one of the things that's taking time is just getting people trained up on giving the shots properly.

JINLENE CHAN: The training is important to make sure that we deliver the right amount of vaccines for every individual and do it in a safe manner and as efficiently as possible without waste. It's not that the vaccines are rolling off the trucks and we're able to administer it immediately.

HUANG: At least not in the very beginning. You know, there's a learning curve.

CHANG: Mmm hmm.

HUANG: And there have also been snowstorms and holidays that have contributed to the slow start.

CHANG: OK. So it seems like some of these things with the vaccination campaign could improve with time and with experience, right?

HUANG: Yeah. And health officials are expecting that the pace of vaccinations will pick up basically starting now. Here's the CDC's Nancy Messonnier at a press conference yesterday.


NANCY MESSONNIER: Many jurisdictions had planned for a slightly measured initial weeks of rollout. Now that the holiday's over, I expect this program to continue to escalate and actually escalate really quickly.

HUANG: I also checked in with Michigan's Washtenaw County Health Department yesterday.

CHANG: Mmm hmm.

HUANG: Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, their spokesperson, said that they have been struggling, but they are picking up the pace this week.

SUSAN RINGLER-CERNIGLIA: So going into this, we have done just over a thousand, and we had 1,300 scheduled this week.


HUANG: They have a clinic set up in a convention center. They've posted job openings for more vaccinators. They want to add more full days at capacity. And there have been bumps in the road, but they're getting the hang of it.

CHANG: OK. So I get why health officials just are asking for a little patience right now. But what are some things that could be done to sort of jumpstart this whole effort?

HUANG: Yeah. Well, the short answer is money. And health officials have been asking for money for months. And with the latest coronavirus relief package from Congress, states are actually getting $3 billion this month just for vaccine distribution. Kansas Health Secretary Lee Norman told me how they're planning to spend it.

LEE NORMAN: It allowed us to purchase some vehicles for mobile vaccination. It'll allow us to bring on additional personnel.

HUANG: Another thing is just having more vaccine supply. You know, if another vaccine gets authorized soon, more will be available and that pool of eligibility could open up more quickly. And a third ask from local health officials is coordination and guidance from the federal government. You know, some states and counties are clearly doing better than others. And having the government help identify and share best practices would save them from reinventing the wheel with every step.

CHANG: OK. And real quick - of course, this is the very beginning. What would the next phase of this campaign look like?

HUANG: Yeah. Well, you know, it looks like more people getting eligibility to get the vaccine based on their age or their job. And that is going to make it a little bit more complicated in terms of finding and scheduling people. It's also going to require a really big communications campaign to make it clear...

CHANG: Right.

HUANG: ...To people when it's their turn and to spread the public health message that these vaccines are safe for most people and help them decide to roll up their sleeves.

CHANG: That is NPR's Pien Huang. Thank you so much, Pien.

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.