Vaccine Distribution Rehearsals Portend Delays, State Official Told Congress

Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant in Portage, Mich., Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)
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As COVID-19 vaccine distribution is getting underway around the country, at least one state official has warned that serious delays could affect the rollout.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine told a House committee last week that a quarter of states had seen significant issues in mock distribution scenarios hosted by the federal government.

“In recent mock shipments of vaccine to train and test the transportation/logistics planning that has been done by [Operation Warp Speed], there have been varying levels of success,” Levine said.

Hospitals around country began vaccinating their frontline health care workers today, marking a first step towards what could bring the pandemic to an end.

But while the start of the vaccination campaign has been greeted with fanfare, Levine’s comments suggest that the plan could suffer from delays going forward.

The Trump administration’s bid to accelerate vaccine development, Operation Warp Speed, has succeeded in bringing Pfizer’s COVID-19 shot to early approval, while Moderna’s inoculation is likely to receive the same emergency approval from federal regulators next week.

Trump officials have planned a distribution system in which the federal government will allocate vaccine to the states, who then have to get the pandemic-ending shot out to citizens themselves. Levine and other state officials have said that Congress needs to allocate up to $9 billion to ensure that this happens; to date, Congress has allocated nothing.

The Trump administration has stepped in with a federal partnership that will ensure vaccinations for the first two categories of people: frontline health-care workers and nursing home residents. That effort will likely last until the end of President Trump’s administration, leaving President-elect Joe Biden with a giant, unsolved problem.

Levine said that rehearsals of the federal distribution portion — getting the vaccine to the states — had already revealed problems.

“In approximately one-quarter of states, at least one significant issue arose during the mock shipment that requires attention prior to shipping actual vaccine,” Levine said.

She added that states had seen “ancillary supplies” — kits that include needles, syringes, and PPE for vaccinators — arrive two days after the vaccines themselves.

“Vaccine that arrives without the ancillary supplies required to administer it will delay the vaccination of key prioritized populations,” she told lawmakers.

Levine added that the federal government had only allocated around $340 million for the distribution effort, based on pre-existing funding.

“That’s about $1 per American to mount an immunization enterprise that is unparalleled in scale and complication,” she said.

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