As multiple states across the country say they have run out of vaccines to administer and are left waiting on the federal government to get them additional doses, the incoming Biden team is pleading with them to hold out hope just a little longer.
In public press conferences Tuesday, officials from multiple states said they could not move more quickly to scale vaccination in their states until they received additional instructions on how to go about procuring the millions of additional doses needed to match the growing demand.
Officials in California, New Jersey, Kentucky and New York all told The Daily Beast that residents of their states have had their vaccination appointments canceled as a result of the low supply. Some said the breakdown in communication with the outgoing Trump administration over the last 10 days and the confusing process of navigating the transition to a new White House has forced them to consider purchasing the vaccine directly from Pfizer and Moderna. Some states have already inquired with the companies directly about the possibility of setting up future orders, according to multiple officials familiar with their state’s planning.
“We don’t have enough supply,” said Kentucky Gov. Andrew Beshear. “Supply is going to be our major issue … and it’s why we’re going to have patience. It’s why we can’t guarantee that every pharmacy across Kentucky gets vaccine.” Beshear said he requested from Operation Warp Speed that the federal government double the amount of vaccine the state receives each week.
In response to the growing concerns from states about their future vaccine supply and the ability to increase their vaccination rates more quickly, President-elect Joe Biden’s team is urging states to refrain from purchasing doses from the companies directly. According to two individuals familiar with the incoming administration’s plans, Biden’s team feels confident that the president-elect’s plan for COVID-19, laid out in a speech last week, will adequately address states’ concerns.
“We need to have a national approach to vaccinations, and must ensure states aren't competing against each other like they did with PPE, ventilators, and tests,” said TJ Ducklo, a spokesperson for the Biden transition. “We are taking aggressive steps like fully exercising the Defense Production Act to expand vaccine supply and clearly communicate with states on allocation and delivery."
The president-elect said last week that he would significantly speed up the vaccine distribution by widening the recommendations for who should get the shot and when. And he released his $1.9 million COVID-19 plan, which calls for direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans, $350 billion in state and local aid, $50 billion toward COVID-19 testing and an additional $20 billion for a national vaccine program with state and local governments.
“It’s going to take time to get where we need to be. There will be stumbles, but I will always be honest with you about both the progress we’re making and what setbacks we meet,” Biden said in his speech on Jan. 14
States struggling with increasing hospitalizations and COVID-19 related deaths say they don’t have the time to wait for the incoming administration to rework how the vaccines are ordered, shipped and delivered—they just got used to the new system. Most said they are waiting to get more information from the new administration, “We need these vaccines now,” one state health department official said.
The Biden team has not laid out exactly how the new administration will tweak the distribution process. According to state officials, the Biden team has told them that the new administration will create a new version of the existing Operation Warp Speed structure and that the vaccine program would be run out of the White House and overseen by Dr. David Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
Part of the confusion among states is how the newest Trump administration federal guidelines on vaccine distribution have impacted the manufacturing process. The Department of Health and Human Services, along with the Centers for Disease Control, recently released a new set of recommendations that allow states to hand out the vaccine more freely—to widen the population of who can receive the shot in the first wave. The federal government also said it would start to release doses it had originally held in reserve for second shot dosing.
That change came as welcome news to states struggling to find ways to more swiftly administer the vaccine to its residents. But those extra doses never showed up.
Some state officials surmise that the new guidelines have increased demand for the vaccine and that the supply chain could have broken down under that pressure. In other words, the number of doses requested by states over the last two weeks could have simply overwhelmed the system. Other officials said they are not exactly sure what happened but that the vaccine doses are not arriving in full. A report by The Washington Post said the second doses the federal government promised to release to states never existed. According to the report, the Trump administration had already begun tapping into those reserves and distributing them to states in early December.
Tackling the COVID-19 crisis will be an enormous task for the incoming Biden administration not only because the virus is still spreading rapidly through communities across the U.S. but because the new administration wants to approach the federal government’s response differently than President Donald Trump. The Biden COVID-19 team says it wants to re-empower the career scientists and doctors and to cut down the bureaucracy that surrounds getting states what they need. That will take time, officials working with the Biden COVID-19 task force say. And it will also take resources that aren’t yet readily available.
“That’s why we’re worried things are going to get worse before they get better,” said one state health official.
The recent complaints by states follows weeks of frustrations over the federal government’s rollout of the vaccine.
Days after the initial doses were shipped by Pfizer in the second week of December, states reported receiving less vaccine doses than anticipated. Officials working with Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership to fast-track a vaccine, rebuffed the states’ concerns, saying a slight shift in the allocation schedule had caused a minor delay but that more vaccine doses were on the way.
In the initial days of the vaccine distribution, state officials closely followed the recommendations from the CDC that detailed how officials should go about doling out doses, including who should receive the vaccine first. It wasn’t until earlier this month, after vaccine rates stalled, that the federal government began to discuss redefining the CDC’s guidelines in an effort to push states to distribute the vaccine more freely.
On Jan. 12, the federal government, in tandem with the Biden COVID-19 team, told states to open up the vaccines to everyone in America older than age 65, as well as anyone younger who has a pre-existing condition that could make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. On top of widening access, the government said it would no longer hold back doses for the second shot of the vaccine.
Now, as more and more people across the U.S. are signing up to receive the vaccine ahead of when they were supposed to, states say they have none to hand out.
The U.S. death toll reached 400,000 Tuesday, the eve of Biden’s inauguration.