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WASHINGTON — Even as private companies rush to test a coronavirus vaccine and both federal and state governments prepare for a massive distribution effort, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautioned on Wednesday that mass vaccination of the American public is still many months away.
“I think that’s going to take us April, May, June, you know, possibly July, to get the entire American public completely vaccinated,” CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield told the Senate health and education committee in a Wednesday hearing.
Hopes are running high for a vaccine that will allow Americans to return to normal economic and social activity. Those hopes have been stoked by President Trump himself, who has promised a vaccine as early as October. Most public health experts do not believe that is a realistic promise, even though four vaccine candidates are currently undergoing human trials.
Redfield angered Trump last week by saying that wearing a mask was potentially a better anti-coronavirus weapon than a vaccine, which he said then — as he did on Wednesday — would not become widely available until late spring or summer of 2021.
“I think he made a mistake when he said that,” Trump said in response to Redfield’s statement at the time. “It’s just incorrect information and I called him and he didn’t tell me that and I think he got the message maybe confused, maybe it was stated incorrectly.”
The CDC did not answer a Yahoo News request to explain what Redfield met by “completely vaccinated,” but for a vaccine to halt community spread, epidemiologists say that about 70 percent of Americans need to get vaccinated. Three of the four vaccines now in human trials need to be administered twice, about a month apart.
A potential vaccine being developed by Johnson & Johnson, which began trials this week, requires only one injection.
In his testimony, Redfield said that there would be 700 million doses of vaccine available by April. Trump has said much the same thing, despite also promising that distribution would start in October. Trump appears to see April as completion of the vaccine effort, whereas for Redfield, that will be a turning point in a battle that will continue in the ensuing months.
Either scenario could be overly optimistic. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of public health at Brown University, said that he expected about 150 million doses of coronavirus vaccine to be available by March or April. But he also predicted potential shortages of vaccine-related supplies, such as vials.
Dr. Eric Topol, founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said there still will be segments of the population that remain untreated (children, pregnant women, perhaps others) and supply distribution issues into “mid-year” 2021.
Dr. Topol also worried about “the challenge of anti-vaxxers and refusers.” Roughly one-third of Americans have already said they will refuse to take a vaccine. Their reluctance could frustrate public health efforts to reach the necessary levels of immunity.
Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist, speculated that while health care and essential workers could be vaccinated throughout the winter and early spring, mass vaccination of the American public would only take place in June. And all that assumes that a vaccine “is found efficacious enough and safe,” Dr. Feigl-Ding said.
Optimistic assumptions have bedeviled the nation’s coronavirus response, leading to premature lifting of lockdown orders and other behavior that has prolonged the pandemic. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office expressed concern about the lack of a national vaccination plan. The Trump administration summarily dismissed the report.
“Why we would assume the rosiest scenario, I don’t know,” Dr. Jha told Yahoo News. He predicted a gradual return to normal throughout the next two years, as opposed to the kind of instantaneous virus eradication Trump has been promising since the pandemic began.
“False hope doesn’t ever help anybody,” he said.
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