U.S. coronavirus vaccinations slow amid growing hesitancy

A slowing pace of coronavirus vaccinations in the U.S. is fueling concerns that vaccine supply will soon exceed demand. As Janet Shamlian reports, efforts are lagging in the South and Midwest. Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, joined CBSN's Lana Zak to discuss the latest.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: The pace of coronavirus vaccinations in the US is slowing. Data from the CDC suggests that the seven-day moving average has dropped below 3 million shots per day. Health experts believe vaccine supply could soon exceed demand.

So far, more than 89 million people have become fully vaccinated, and more than 135 million people have received at least one dose. Meanwhile, federal health officials will soon decide on the fate of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That vaccine was put on hold over reports of blood clots. Janet Shamlian begins our coverage from Houston.

JANET SHAMLIAN: Tonight, the CDC and the FDA are leaning towards resuming use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine with a warning about blood clots.

- I think too many people may be scared off by-- by taking the vaccine. They shouldn't be, but perception is everything when it comes to vaccines.

JANET SHAMLIAN: A decision expected tomorrow, more than a week after the vaccine's distribution was paused following reports of rare but dangerous blood clots in eight people under the age of 50. "The Washington Post" reports age restrictions are unlikely to be added. It comes as the fight against the coronavirus may have reached a crossroads. Long waits for shots are now giving way to empty vaccination sites as vaccine supply is expected to soon outpace demand. Some mass vaccination sites are now allowing walk-ins and drive-ups for anyone.

- We're about at the point where any American who wants to get a vaccine can get a vaccine, and that's what you need to get to that 80% threshold for when life can resume back to normal.

JANET SHAMLIAN: More than 135 million Americans, 40% of the population, have received at least one shot. But vaccinations are lagging in the deep South and parts of the Midwest. Nationwide, an 11% week-over-week drop. Some areas are refusing vaccine shipments. More than 60 of the 105 counties in Kansas turned them down this week because they would go unused.

- If you look at the lowest vaccination rates in the country right now, they are overwhelmingly red states. And I believe a lot of that is due to vaccine hesitancy and refusal among-- among, as all the polls say, conservative and Republican groups.

JANET SHAMLIAN: Amid COVID fatigue, the CDC says it will issue new guidelines soon on outdoor mask use. Experts like virologist Ben Neuman still say don't give the virus a chance.

BEN NEUMAN: What we're fighting here is basically a scorched earth battle. We are trying to take away all the food, sustenance, and comfort that this virus needs in order to grow.

JANET SHAMLIAN: Neuman recently identified three new variants in Texas, one, he says, with the potential to be much more transmissible and resistant to antibodies. Also tonight, a study finds pregnant women who contract COVID have higher rates of complications, including preterm births. This as the CDC says the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are safe for pregnant women, according to an early study.

And turning to travel, the State Department has now expanded its do not travel list of countries. It's now more than 115. That's up from roughly 30 about a week ago. And it includes India, which today set a one-day global record for new coronavirus cases. The health care system there is just overwhelmed. Right now they're experiencing a shortage of both hospital beds and oxygen. Lana.

LANA ZAK: Janet, thank you. We're going to dig deeper into this with Dr. Amesh Adalja. He is an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Dr. Adalja, always great to talk to you. Thank you for being here and for all that you do. So let's get right into the CDC data, which shows the seven-day vaccination average has dropped below 3 million for the first time in weeks. How much of this has to do with the Johnson & Johnson pause versus a lack of vaccine enthusiasm?

JANET SHAMLIAN: It's likely a combination of both. We know that we were going to hit a wall as we moved out of those high-risk groups, out of health care workers who were eager to be vaccinated, and that we would be no longer supply constrained, but demand constrained. I do think the Johnson & Johnson pause will likely have some contribution to vaccine hesitancy. I hope I'm wrong, but I think it will be something that we have to contend with.

But it's becoming harder and harder to find people that want to get vaccinated. And I think we have to be proactive now and really address these concerns regarding vaccine hesitancy. This is a real signal, and it's going to be a real barrier to getting control of this virus if we stall out at 26% of the population fully vaccinated or 30% or wherever it actually ends up. We need to get vaccine into those other individuals if we're going to get cases down and-- and really end the public health emergency.

LANA ZAK: And we know also those new variants continue to gain speed when-- when we don't have enough vaccinations. So I want to continue, though, with you a little bit longer on the question of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because, as we saw, federal health officials are leaning towards resuming that vaccine. Two questions on this. If that happens, how can we overcome vaccine fear and hesitancy regarding the Johnson & Johnson vaccine? And if we are indeed approaching an oversupply of vaccine in this country, how important is it to get the J&J vaccine back out there?

AMESH ADALJA: It's going to be difficult to resume this pause because it's gone on for several days now. But I do think if you look at the data, this Johnson & Johnson vaccine is safe. It's efficacious. And this side effect is extremely rare taking account how many doses we've given to the population and how few of these cases that occurred.

And we've seen the European Medicines Association talk about this as well. They've resume-- they've allowed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to-- to be something that can be used in Europe with a warning label. And I think what we're going to have to do is really talk about the risk-benefits. And if you're a 60-year-old person with diabetes, the-- the risk of these rare blood clots is going to be greatly outweighed by the benefit of the vaccine. And that's what we're going to have to do.

And this is an important vaccine because even if we've got good supplies of Pfizer and Moderna, this is a vaccine that you can get to hard-to-reach populations with because it doesn't require cold storage. It's something that's one and done, one shot, so you can put this in mobile vaccination clinics. You can go door to door. You can do homeless clinics.

And it's also going to be important for the world because of the same characteristics. This is going to be an important vaccine that helps the world control COVID-19. And we've just heard about India. We know Brazil is bad. Even Canada, our neighbor to the north, is having a hard time getting vaccine into people. So having the Johnson & Johnson vaccine back online is going to be useful not only for the US, but for the entire world.

LANA ZAK: I want to talk about pregnant women. A preliminary study published in "The New England Journal of Medicine" suggests that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not pose serious risks to pregnant women or to the babies that they're carrying. How important is this news?

AMESH ADALJA: It's very important, because what we're trying to do is increase confidence in pregnant women because they are at higher risk for complications. They have higher preterm labor, higher C-section rates. So getting vaccine into pregnant women is-- is going to be the way-- the best way to protect them and to protect the developing fetuses, because some of those antibodies then cross into the developing fetus, and it will protect the newborn for some period of time.

But what we wanted is a lot of data to be able to say this is safe, because women are naturally going to be hesitant about a new vaccine when they're trying to-- when they're pregnant and they're really worried about any kind of problem that could happen with that pregnancy. This data helps us get a lot farther in that discussion that we're able to now tell people that we have data accrued, that women who have been vaccinated have not had any major problems, that we're not seeing any higher rate of miscarriage or any of those issues. And that should help OB/GYNs counsel their patients, and it should help us to really make the case to pregnant women that they need to be vaccinated at a highest rate as possible.

LANA ZAK: The head of the CDC says that the agency is considering revising its mask guidance amid growing calls to ease restrictions on outdoor activities. What's your take?

AMESH ADALJA: We've seen throughout this pandemic that the epidemiological data says that when you're outdoors transmission is much less likely, especially because you can naturally social distance. There's better ventilation. And I think what we want to do is follow the science. We want our public health guidance on masks to be followed by being matched with the best science. And what the science is telling us is that we can do this safely, and some cities are already starting to lift these outdoor mask mandates.

So I do think a revision of the guidance by the CDC is-- is necessary. And I think it should reflect the science about outdoor versus indoor transmission. And I think, hopefully, it will start to-- to dampen all the politicization that's occurred and all the acrimony over masks when they see-- when people see that there is science behind what guides mask decisions. And hopefully this is something that the CDC will do sooner rather than later.

LANA ZAK: Hmm. Before I let you go, I do want to give some attention to the global nature of the pandemic, specifically India breaking that global record Thursday reporting more than 314,000 new coronavirus infections in just 24 hours. Do we know how the situation there got so bad? And how might it impact other nations around the globe?

AMESH ADALJA: It's a complicated picture in India. And they've-- early on, they had a lot of complacency because they didn't get hit hard. And that likely got people to think that maybe they were going to be spared, like some other countries in Africa may have been. But that wasn't the case.

And when they started to get cases, they had a lockdown and then that caused a lot of people who couldn't social distance, who couldn't comply with the lockdown because they don't have the economic luxury to be able to social distance, to move to the countryside, and that kind of caused a major spread of this virus throughout the continent. And now they are surging. They are surging in the midst of a more contagious variant that likely has arose there.

And this is something that's happening to a place where they don't have great health-- health care infrastructure. We're hearing about hospitals that are inundated, that are running out of oxygen. And this is going to be very hard to control even with the vaccine that's out there. About 9% of the population in India has been vaccinated. That's not enough to-- to make a dent in what's going on. They really have to-- to reset this whole thing and get back to the basics and get as much vaccine into people as quickly as possible.

LANA ZAK: All right, Dr. Amesh Adalja, thank you.

AMESH ADALJA: Thank you.