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News Brief: COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout, 2021 Economy, Brexit

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The campaign to vaccinate Americans against COVID-19 is getting off to a slower start than officials had hoped - much slower.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a key number. In recent weeks, about 3 million people received their first shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. That sounds impressive, to be honest. But given the urgency of the pandemic, officials had forecast 20 million shots by now.

FADEL: Joining us to talk about what it will take to speed up the process is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Hey, Richard. Happy New Year.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Same to you, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you. So, Richard, I wish you were here to tell us the vaccines will soon be readily available. But it sounds like the country is far short of the expected pace. What happened?

HARRIS: Well, what happened is there are lots of reasons. And let's start with expectations. The Trump administration has long promised quick fixes to the coronavirus pandemic, including a vaccine that would be widely available in 2020. Remember that? And indeed, you know, the administration did back an effort that produced these vaccines in record time. But I spoke yesterday with Dr. Marcus Plescia, who is the chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. And his take is that the timetable for vaccination was largely aspirational.

MARCUS PLESCIA: We just had a meeting with the majority of our state health officials. And, you know, the feeling from them was that it actually was rolling out quite well. You know, it's only been a couple of weeks.

HARRIS: This is an enormous undertaking, you know? It is the most massive vaccination campaign in U.S. history. And he says health officials are still very much on the learning curve.

FADEL: So that big number was aspirational. What are the challenges they're running into as they move forward?

HARRIS: Well, Plescia says, for one thing, there is a lot of logistics to work out. One vaccine needs to be held at super low temperatures, for example. But he says it's also been a real challenge to ramp up this effort during the holidays when many exhausted health care workers are simply trying to take some time off.

PLESCIA: The biggest logistical challenge is vaccinating people during a pandemic where we have to maintain social distancing. You know, it's just - we're not used to doing that.

HARRIS: Yeah, nobody wants to spread COVID-19 to people standing in line to get vaccinated against the disease.

FADEL: Oh, my gosh.

HARRIS: And once people - yeah, and once people have been vaccinated, they have to wait nearby for at least 15 minutes just in case they have a rare reaction that requires medical attention. So you need safe places for people to do that, too.

FADEL: So lots of logistical challenges - but frankly, they've got to pick up the pace of vaccinations if most Americans are going to get their shots in the coming months. What needs to happen?

HARRIS: Plescia says he expects the pace to quicken a lot in January after the holidays and as health providers figure out how to optimize their routines. But you know, some of this also involves money. The federal government has poured billions of dollars into developing, manufacturing and distributing these vaccines, but it has provided very little funding to local health care workers who have the enormous task of vaccinating people. Dr. Howard Koh at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health says some significant funding to hire new staff to do that is finally on the way thanks to the COVID relief bill that just got signed.

HOWARD KOH: The new congressional package is an excellent down payment. It has some $8 billion out of a $900 billion relief package to shore up a public health infrastructure that's been hollowed out for far too long. But the public health systems at the state and local level need much more support going forward if we're going to return to any sense of normal soon.

HARRIS: And he's also incensed that some members of the public have been provoked to lash out against the public health officials over issues like mask-wearing, when, in fact, the public health system is playing such a vital role in helping us through the pandemic, notably now rolling out all of these vaccines for us.

FADEL: So much on health officials' shoulders - NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, thank you.

HARRIS: Anytime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: 2021 could be a year of healing for both people and the economy.

INSKEEP: But how much healing depends on who you are. Just about everybody in this country was touched by the pandemic, of course, but not everyone was affected equally, nor was the economic pain spread evenly. So what can we expect in the months ahead?

FADEL: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. Happy New Year, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So, Scott, we begin the new year with new vaccines against the coronavirus in hand, although so far not very many have gotten to people's arms. But that's got to improve the outlook of 2021, right?

HORSLEY: It should certainly help. The Federal Reserve is now projecting that the U.S. economy will grow this year by more than 4% and that by the end of the year, unemployment will have fallen to around 5%. Both those forecasts are rosier than what the Fed was expecting just a few months ago. A survey of business economists also finds growing optimism. Nearly 3 out of 4 now think the economy will have regained all the ground it lost last year sometime in the second half of this coming year.

FADEL: That sounds like some good news, but a lot depends on getting a handle on the pandemic. Right now, a few hours into this new year, it doesn't feel like we're doing that. What has to happen?

HORSLEY: You know, we're still losing more than 3,000 friends, neighbors, co-workers, family members to this virus every single day. And that's an enormous economic, as well as human loss. Because so many people are getting sick, we're seeing more restrictions on in-person businesses. Consumers are also likely to be more cautious. We also know now this new variation of the virus that appears to spread more easily is here in the U.S., and that could lead to more crackdowns. It's certainly good news that we have these highly effective vaccines which truly were developed at warp speed. But as you and Richard were just talking about, the shots are being distributed at a much more pedestrian pace. President-elect Joe Biden has put out the goal of delivering 100 million shots in the first 100 days, but we're just doing a fraction of that now. So unless there's a sharp acceleration, it's going to take a long time to reach critical mass.

FADEL: So restaurants, movie theaters, airlines and other businesses that typically brings people to - that typically bring people together - those businesses are hurting. Are other parts of the economy doing OK, though?

HORSLEY: Yeah, this has been a really uneven recovery for both individuals and whole industries. People who have in-demand jobs they can do from home might be doing just fine. A lot of factories are actually operating at close to pre-pandemic levels. They're keeping their workers spaced out and churning out products that people need. Consumers are buying a lot of stuff right now. In some cases, they're actually buying more stuff because they can't spend money on things like eating out or traveling or going to concerts. Those service-oriented businesses and the people who work in them, though, are still suffering. We could see a fairly rapid rebound in services once people feel safe going out in crowds again. Some people have managed to save money while they've been hunkered down, and they're going to be eager to spend it once the virus is under control.

FADEL: And what about the stock market?

HORSLEY: We had a gut-wrenching plunge in stocks during the springtime when the pandemic first took hold. But since then, stocks have made up all the ground they lost and then some. Both the Dow and the S&P 500 index closed at record highs yesterday. Investors are betting the worst is behind us, and the months and years ahead are going to be brighter. Let's just hope that's true for the broader economy, as well.

FADEL: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: A new year and a new start for Europe, as Britain finally cuts ties with the EU after nearly five decades as part of the bloc.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Today, the U.K. embarks on a fresh relationship with its neighbors. For decades, people have taken trains under the English Channel to France or boarded planes to Berlin without passing passport control. Now the border is much more significant with new customs, health and other regulations.

FADEL: To tell us what it looks like from France, we're joined by reporter Rebecca Rosman in the port city of Calais. Welcome. Happy New Year.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: Happy New Year.

FADEL: So it sounds like you're standing outside of the port there.

ROSMAN: I am standing outside the port. I'm standing surrounded by seagulls here. Yeah, there's a lot of goods being shipped across the channel.

FADEL: So what does this change actually look like today? How does it change travel, trade, procedures?

ROSMAN: Well, there's no tariffs, but this is a real border now, like you said. So we saw the first ship come in from Dover this morning. There were 36 trucks on the ship. And they all had to declare their goods. So it's a lot of paperwork. And France has invested a lot of money to make sure things run smoothly. The French government has hired 700 customs officials, invested 13 million euros in new infrastructure and another 40 million euros in software, so all customs declarations can be filled out online in advance.

FADEL: Calais is the main port for goods going to and from the U.K. So with all these changes, could this become a potential bottleneck? And I know you're barely - we're barely into the new year, but what does it look like now? Is that possible?

ROSMAN: Right. You know, today, it's quite calm for a couple of reasons. As you mentioned, it's the new year. It's the holiday period still. Also with COVID, you have truck drivers who are avoiding the port right now. But I have to say, also, another reason it's calm today is because French customs officials are really prepared. You know, like I mentioned, there's a lot of investment in manpower, infrastructure. When the holiday period ends, people are saying come mid-January, there is concern there could be these bottlenecks you mentioned. I spoke with one French customs official who said he is worried that while, you know, the French government is prepared - customs officials are prepared - there is a risk that businesses are not as prepared for those new procedures.

FADEL: Now, let's take a step back. We've been talking about Brexit for 4 1/2 years. Today, the deal is done. How are people in France feeling about the moment being here?

ROSMAN: I would say there is a lot of sadness and also a little bitterness. French President Emmanuel Macron gave his annual New Year's Eve address yesterday to the French people. And he talked about Brexit in his speech. He said, you know, the U.K. will always remain a friend and neighbor to France. But Brexit was the child of a European malaise and lies. So he also made this appeal to French citizens, you know, to really stick with Europe. And the people I've been speaking to here in Calais agree with Macron. I spoke with a taxi driver yesterday who said he felt that Brexit was built on false promises that can never be met. I also met a man who was fishing by the dock with his family here. And he said he struggles to understand how the British people made this decision four years ago. But at the same time, he says, you know, this is what happened. They made their decision. It's a new year. And now it's time to move on.

FADEL: Rebecca Rosman in Calais, France, thank you.

ROSMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "CAN'T TALK NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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