Senators Push For Answers On Trump Admin Decision To Give Pentagon Lead Vaccine Role

WASHINGTON, DC - June 17: Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., during the first day of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions markup of comprehensive healthcare legislation. (Photo by Sco... WASHINGTON, DC - June 17: Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., during the first day of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions markup of comprehensive healthcare legislation. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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August 7, 2020 12:03 p.m.

The Trump administration needs to explain why it has sidelined the Centers for Disease Control and ordered the Pentagon to take over vaccine distribution, two senators said in a letter released Friday.

Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Jack Reed (D-RI) wrote in the letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that “it is essential the Trump Administration use existing expertise, systems, and infrastructure as it also seeks to leverage the logistical expertise of the Department of Defense in these efforts.”

TPM reported last week that the Trump administration had given the Defense Department a management role in distributing vaccines. Experts told TPM that the CDC — the country’s premier public health organization — would typically take the lead, using its relationships with health departments around the country to distribute vaccines both for the annual seasonal flu and in emergency situations like pandemics.

The policy shift is part of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s program to accelerate development and production of a COVID-19 vaccine.

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But the details of the shift remain unclear. An Operation Warp Speed official told reporters last week that while the DOD would be in charge of distribution, certain CDC functions like IT systems used to track vaccine distribution would remain in place.

The senators asked in the letter to Azar and Defense Secretary Mark Esper for a briefing within fifteen days to detail “the respective roles you envision for DOD and CDC in the COVID-19 vaccine distribution effort.”

That, the letter reads, would include an answer to the question of “who in the U.S. government is ultimately responsible for ensuring such efforts are successful and optimize equity and public health.”

The CDC delivers tens of millions of doses of flu vaccine each year, and delivers millions of doses of other vaccines for children.

Experts have expressed confusion and surprise at why the Trump administration sidelined a public health body from the task of distributing the vaccine.

Dr. Howard Koh, HHS assistant secretary for health from 2009 to 2014, told TPM this week that the decision marked a “break with precedent.”

“Seasonal flu distribution is always done by CDC, and they have a long history of working with local and state health departments,” Koh said. “There’s some judgment of how it needs to be distributed to the states and to the local health departments, and the CDC is very experienced at that.”

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