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How The U.S. Could Ramp Up Vaccination Against The Coronavirus

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

With nearly 16,000 dead from COVID-19 in the U.S. this past week alone, where is the urgency to distribute vaccines? You'll recall, on the campaign trail this fall, President Trump repeatedly made this promise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Under Operation Warp Speed, we're on track to deliver at least 100 million doses of a vaccine before the end of the year, with hundreds of millions more to quickly follow.

KELLY: In recent weeks, the administration has scaled that back - way back - and said there would be enough doses to vaccinate 20 million Americans by year's end. Well, as of Monday, the CDC reports only 2 million people have been vaccinated. So what's the holdup? We're going to put that question to Dr. Georges Benjamin. He's executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Dr. Benjamin, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: Thank you.

KELLY: What is the holdup, in your view?

BENJAMIN: Well, you know, at the end of the day, it's about having enough vaccine to actually put shots in the arm. You know, we know how to do this. We have very robust adult vaccination programs, but the key rate-limiting step right now is having enough vaccine.

KELLY: Although, we've heard from officials at Pfizer, for example, saying we've got vaccines in warehouses. We're trying to figure out where they need to go.

BENJAMIN: Yeah. You know, that's - well, that's the challenge. They really need to get this vaccine out and delivered to the communities. Now, let me tell you that once you get the vaccine into the hands of the, you know, hospitals and pharmacies and health departments, it's still a lot of work and still a challenge to actually get shots in the arms. And people are doing that, and they're using really innovative ways to do it. But the truth of the matter is is that we just have not received enough vaccine to really make the difference that we want to see.

KELLY: We started out with me listing some of the numbers for what the goal was in terms of how many vaccines might be in people's arms by the end of this year. President-elect Biden has said his goal is to vaccinate 100 million people in his first hundred days in office. That would mean a million vaccinations a day. Does that goal feel realistic?

BENJAMIN: That's going to be a tough goal, but it is - it can be done. We can vaccinate a million people a day, but it requires us, A, to have the vaccine, B, to have the infrastructure in place and the plans in place to actually do that and, you know, finally, a real push to make sure that people are available to get that vaccination done.

KELLY: To follow on a point you made earlier about the single biggest factor in the holdup is just supply - it's just having enough vaccines. Absolutely, supplies is a huge issue. But to throw a couple more numbers out there, I'm reading that more than 11 million doses have been delivered, but again, only 2 million have actually made it into people's arms. What is happening there between the vaccine being delivered and people actually getting vaccinated?

BENJAMIN: The truth is that initially, we only had 3 million delivered in the first couple of weeks. And then, of course, they rapidly now made available more vaccine. But again, delivery is one thing. Sorting it out, defrosting it, scheduling people and actually getting it into arm over a holiday weekend is something very different. And so it's going to be important that we take this more seriously. This means, frankly, vaccinating seven days a week, maybe, you know, 24 hours a day. I mean, if we're serious about vaccinating people, then we're going to have to change our paradigm around vaccinations and make it the same as - you know, you can get fast food delivered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Maybe if we're really serious, maybe we ought to set up our systems to do exactly that.

KELLY: That is an image that will stick with me. If we can get fast food delivered 24 hours a day, (laughter) why the heck can't we be vaccinating people, as urgent as this is?

BENJAMIN: Yeah. Isn't that something, right?

KELLY: Yeah.

BENJAMIN: This is not a Monday-through-Friday day activity, and we take a break for New Year's and take a break for Christmas. Yeah. That's not what this is about. That didn't happen in World War I or World War II.

KELLY: No. That is Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. We were speaking to him via Skype.

Dr. Benjamin, thank you.

BENJAMIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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