State officials are raising the alarm about the possibility of COVID vaccine doses being stolen or vandalized—prompting top officials at the Department of Defense and National Guard to discuss how best to protect the supplies that could bring an end to the pandemic.
According to three senior administration officials, states have raised these concerns about the security of these vaccine shipments with their federal counterparts. But military officials say protecting stockpiles will likely prove to a matter for the states. While officials say there is normally some concern about the integrity of medical supplies the COVID-19 vaccine has presented new challenges, particularly because the country is in the middle of battling some of the highest positive case numbers, hospitalizations, and death rates since the pandemic began. Interpol is warning that there could be an “onslaught” of fake or stolen COVID-19 vaccines from organized crime groups.
“You will see states utilize the National Guard for security purposes because the guard is good with bulk,” said Juliette Kayyem, an Obama administration assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. “States are going to want protection of the vaccine from a black market or anti-vaxxers who want to destroy it.”
Conversations about COVID-19 vaccine security at the top echelons of the administration come as officials working within the federal government prepare to distribute the first batch of the vaccine to states. Frontline health-care workers and residents of long-term care facilities will receive the first round of doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The federal government has partnered with retail pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens to distribute the vaccine to residents of long-term care facilities.
Officials say that disbursement could come as early as next week following an approval of Pfizer’s emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. And security concerns have mounted, state and local officials say, now that the country will be receiving far fewer doses of the vaccine in the first wave than originally planned. Local communities may experience significant shortages, according to a review of more than a dozen state vaccination distribution plans.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan has already tapped the National Guard in her state to help distribute the vaccine. Citing security concerns, officials in Whitmer’s office told The Daily Beast they were refraining from releasing additional details to the public about which hospitals or local health departments are receiving shipments of the vaccine, how many doses they will be receiving, and when shipments are expected. For the same reasons, one hospital in Wisconsin said it will not release any information to the public about the vaccine distribution taking place at the facility until well after all the first wave of frontline health-care workers is immunized.
Despite conversations about the security of the vaccine and President Donald Trump touting the military’s involvement, administration officials maintain it will play only a logistics role in distributing the vaccine.
“The overwhelming majority of Americans will get a vaccine that no federal employee, including the Department of Defense, has touched,” said Paul Mango, the deputy chief of staff for policy at the Department of Health and Human Services, in a telebriefing last month.
One senior Department of Defense official said it is ultimately up to the states to secure their own vaccines and whether they want to call on the National Guard to help.
“The question is whether the states have enough money to be able to not only distribute the vaccine but to secure it,” one senior administration official said.
Confusion about exactly how many doses will be distributed, and where, is only adding to the unease. Multiple local officials from across the country, including those in Michigan, said they have not released specific information about the vaccine distribution to the public because the federal government keeps changing its figures for exactly how many doses states will receive.
As of early this week states were still updating their distribution plans—documents meant to help guide local officials in the distribution process and to inform the federal government of the state’s logistical manpower. While most states now have a rough estimate of how many doses they’ll get, local health departments and hospitals are still in the midst of drafting systems that can alert frontline health-care workers if they are eligible for immunization and to direct them on how and when to receive the vaccine.
Meanwhile, health departments are ramping up efforts to push the message that the vaccine is safe and effective for immediate immunization. Experts say the changing numbers on what the federal government is promising states in terms of doses manufactured will only create more distrust among Americans about the vaccine and the government’s role in its distribution.
“One of the reasons why you want the government to set realistic if not somewhat pessimistic timelines for how this is going to roll l out is because any disruptions to the supply side are going to have an impact on confidence in the entire process,” Kayyem said. “The one thing we need to protect or to ensure over the course of a 6-9 month process is that demand is always greater than supply. We would rather have people waiting than reluctant.”
In a public address Tuesday, President-elect Joe Biden vowed to distribute 100 million doses of the COVID-10 vaccine in his first months in office.
"I'm absolutely convinced that in 100 days, we can change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better," Biden said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and who is set to serve as Biden’s chief medical adviser, has said the vaccine will likely reach the majority of the American public by June.