President Trump and his top lieutenants would love to have the country believe that the COVID-19 vaccine will be widely available very soon, just a few weeks into the Biden administration.
But there’s an inconvenient problem with that estimate: Systematic lack of funding of public health and failures in the Trump administration’s planning for vaccine distribution will likely extend the vaccine distribution timeline months beyond the outgoing administration’s rosiest predictions.
The Trump administration has a detailed plan to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, but it only covers the first wave of doses. It will take all of six weeks, inoculating frontline health-care workers and nursing home residents, potentially leaving the Biden administration with a surfeit of vaccine but a huge shortfall in planning. That problem is compounded by the lack of funding from Congress for states and cities to manage distribution — a problem partially alleviated this week, when lawmakers arrived at a plan to appropriate $8.75 billion to distribute the shot.
But top Trump officials have tried to create the impression publicly that the vaccine will be widely available to the general public as soon as February — a wildly unrealistic estimate that, if taken seriously, could frame the Biden administration for what seems like a conspicuous early failure.
Democrats are beginning to take notice that they’re being set up.
“The administration’s lack of support for state and local health departments will undoubtedly slow the rate of vaccination and make it difficult to vaccinate vulnerable and hard to reach populations,” wrote Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) in a Monday letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar demanding information about the Trump administration’s vaccine distribution plans.
Azar said last week that Americans should expect the COVID-19 vaccine to be available for the general public by February or March. Though that estimate has been contradicted by officials working within Operation Warp Speed, it could set the Biden administration up for a situation where it fails to meet an unrealistic deadline floated by Trump officials.
By this point, less than a month before the Biden administration takes over, there isn’t time for the Trump administration to spin up a real, thorough vaccine distribution plan — even if it had the political will to do so.
“There is no way that this administration can create an adequate vaccine distribution plan between now and when the Biden team comes in,” a Democratic aide told TPM.
That has forced the Biden team to begin the work of lowering expectations, loath to watch Republicans rhetorically transform Trump’s lack of plan into Biden’s administrative failure.
Vivek Murthy, Biden’s choice for surgeon-general, told Meet The Press on Sunday that he expects widespread availability of vaccines to occur in summer or early fall 2021.
“We want to be optimistic, but we want to be cautious as well,” Murthy said.
The President-elect is focusing on a plan to administer 100 million doses in the first 100 days of his administration, vaccinating 50 million Americans, a Biden transition official told TPM in a Friday statement.
“We will of course follow the guidance of scientists and prioritize vaccines to those most at-risk,” the official said. “Our team continues to meet with Operation Warp Speed and better understand the work they have been doing, and we are committed to ensuring safe and effective vaccines are available to all Americans.”
OWS officials have said that they’re responsible for coordinating vaccine shipments to the states, who then bear the financial and logistical burden of getting the shots into people’s arms. But the specifics of how OWS operates and the challenges it faces have been murky.
“The whole Trump administration response has been riddled with a lack of transparency to say the least,” the same Democratic aide said.
Operation Warp Speed has largely steered clear of broadcasting estimates for when the vaccine will be widely available, instead saying that final distribution is up to local governments.
“There are 64 jurisdictions, so there are potentially 64 different ways of how a jurisdiction is going to choose to allocate their vaccines,” Marion Whicker, deputy chief of supply, production, and distribution for Operation Warp Speed, said in response to a question from TPM last week.
On Saturday, OWS Chief Operating Officer Gen. Gustave Perna said that he didn’t anticipate a situation “where supply will overrun capability and capacity to administer, but we’ll manage and we’ll work that as we go forward.”
To the extent that OWS has put forward a timeline, officials working on the effort, many of whom are career military on detail to Operation Warp Speed, have said that mid-summer or June is when the general population could begin to expect to have the vaccine become available.
That flies in the face of comments from others in the Trump administration — including Azar and Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir — who have said that vaccines will be available to the general public in a matter of months, by February or March.
Congress is set to appropriate $8.75 billion to help in that effort — the amount that the states requested — though local officials say that the money is coming too late to prevent the damage on the ground already created by the months-long congressional delay, during which time public health departments have been stymied in hiring vaccinators, trainers, and people to help plan for the largest inoculation campaign in U.S. history.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), chairman of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, told TPM in a statement that the lack of funding to date had been incredibly harmful.
“Like its deadly failures on testing and PPE, the Trump Administration has failed to advance a comprehensive national plan with detailed guidance as it tries to shift responsibility to the states,” Doggett said, and accused the President of “offer[ing] one false promise after another to the American people” about the distribution effort.
It remains unclear how far the lack of preparation will lengthen the vaccination process. Murthy, in the Meet The Press interview, said that even a perfectly executed plan would mean widespread availability only in late spring.
“We all want the vaccine to be delivered as quickly, as fairly as possible,” he said. “But we also want to be realistic.”