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For the Opposing View, read “HHS chief: COVID-19 vaccination rates will increase.”
Last year, President Donald Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar promised 100 million doses by the end of 2020. As late as Dec. 13, Azar expressed confidence that at least 20 million people would be vaccinated by Jan. 1. "Oh sure, yes," he told "Face the Nation."
By year's end, however, more than 14 million doses of new Pfizer and Moderna vaccines had been delivered to states and over 3 million people had received the first of two shots. (Total shots as of Monday evening stood at nearly 4.6 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Even accounting for lags in reporting, that's far short of the projections.
Success of Operation Warp Speed
The slow start is alarming. The virus continues to rage, a new variant is spreading and scientists estimate that 197-230 million Americans will need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for life to finally return to normal.
The irony is that the success of Operation Warp Speed in producing new vaccines in record time was the administration's one true success story in a year of otherwise failed and chaotic leadership. Even that success, though, and what remains of federal credibility, might be tarnished unless officials at all levels of government can get shots into arms at a faster pace.
To be sure, the obstacles are daunting. Major new programs — remember the Obamacare rollout? — often get off to rocky starts.
There were many honest reasons for the initial vaccination delays: holidays, snowstorms and the logistical constraints with vaccines requiring subzero storage — not to mention a recalcitrant Congress that waited until the very last minute to approve vitally needed vaccination funding. But this was predictable when Trump and Azar made their promises. Officials had months to prepare for the well-known "last mile" problem of turning vaccines into a vaccination program.
Trump dumps on states
The president, as usual, blamed everyone else. If vaccinations were late, he tweeted, it was the fault of resource-strapped states with health care systems already overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Dumping the vaccines on the states has had the same results as leaving masking decisions, testing, contact tracing and other responsibilities to the 50 governors: Some do a good job, some not so much, and the country ends up with a patchwork response to a national crisis.
The vaccination rate has ranged from about 14% in Georgia to nearly 50% in South Dakota. The Florida Department of Health in Lee County offered hundreds of doses on a first-come-first-served basis to those 65 and older; phone lines crashed and people wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags waited all night in 46-degree weather for a short supply of shots that many missed out on.
Scientists desperate to see more people inoculated quickly are already talking about forgoing second-dosage requirements, or cutting doses in half to make more shots available. But increasing the number of shots available won't help where there's a logjam in getting them injected.
The federal government can't do everything, but it can establish best practices and work more closely with states on vaccine administration, following examples set elsewhere. In Germany, authorities have within days turned available public venues into massive vaccination centers. In Italy, the government has erected pop-up pavilions.
In addition, a federal plan could be developed to train retired or active medical personnel in vaccination delivery, along the lines of what Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, suggested last week.
There's also a key role for the private sector, including the major pharmacy chains.
There is no time to lose. This is a national emergency. Deaths have surpassed 350,000. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Americans are dying as a result of COVID-19 every day and, after a holiday season filled with parties and family gatherings, those numbers will almost certainly increase in the weeks ahead.
Trump, consumed with fantasies of overturning the election results, seems incapable of improving his leadership in this crisis. That means more delay as America waits for President-elect Joe Biden to take office in two weeks.
Like a slowly starting locomotive, the vaccine rollout will undoubtedly pick up steam. Biden is promising to inoculate a million people per day during his first 100 days in office. We can only hope that he overdelivers.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff and the USA TODAY Network. Most editorials are coupled with an Opposing View, a unique USA TODAY feature.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 vaccine rollout: Trump, HHS are throwing away their shot