INDIANAPOLIS — The day President Biden was inaugurated, a record 4,131 Americans died of COVID-19. That was 4,130 more than Jan. 20, 2020, the day of the first U.S. death. Here is the most critical challenge facing Biden: Vaccinate as many of the 320 million Americans as soon as possible.
While the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed helped develop the COVID-19 vaccine in record time, most of the manufactured doses haven’t been injected into the arms of Americans. And until that happens, the staggered U.S. economy won’t shake off this pandemic and return to normal.
According to the CDC, as of Tuesday, 3.3% of the Indiana population had received one dose, 0.6% had received two doses. There have been 642,425 doses received, 260,310 doses injected, or 41% of the total. Nationally, 3.2% of the population have received one dose, 0.5% two doses, with 31,161,075 doses distributed, 12,279,180 given and 39% of doses used.
The urgency is that the virus is mutating into a more infectious mode. As former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on CBS “Face The Nation” last Sunday, the new variant is roughly 0.5% of all infections nationwide but said that likely will double each week. “That’s the experience from other countries and that’s the experience we’ve seen so far in the United States,” he said. “So it’s 1% now. It’ll be 2%, then 4%, then 8%, then 16%, then 32%. So in about five weeks, this is going to start to take over.”
Last week Biden unveiled his strategy. “Our plan is as clear as it is bold: Get more people vaccinated for free. Create more places for them to get vaccinated. Mobilize more medical teams to get the shots in people’s arms. Increase supply and get it out the door as soon as possible,” Biden said at his pandemic plan rollout in Wilmington, Delaware. He characterized Operation Warp Speed as a “dismal failure.”
Operation Warp Speed had projected 20 million Americans to be vaccinated by the end of 2020. That stood at just over 9 million on Jan. 1. Last week, the Trump administration allowed Biden transition team would have full access to the vaccination process. Why that didn’t happen shortly after the Nov. 3 election is a casualty in President Trump’s “big lie” that he actually won the election in a “landslide.”
He didn’t, and the last two months of what was supposed to be a transition became lost time and lives.
Last week, the Trump administration said it would release more doses to the states. Health & Human Services Sec. Alex Azar explained, “We’ve had so much success with quality and predictable manufacturing and almost flawless distribution of the vaccine. We had been holding back second doses as a safety stock. We now believe that our manufacturing is predictable enough that we can ensure second doses are available for people from ongoing production, so everything is now available.”
But two days later, the Washington Post reported that the shelf was bare; there were no surplus vaccines available. Those already in state hands were languishing in freezer boxes.
Biden’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on CNN’s “State of the Union” last Sunday, “We’re inheriting a huge mess here, but we have a plan to fix it, the president-elect put out that plan on Friday. We think there are things we can do to speed up the delivery of that vaccine, and make that vaccine supply go farther. For example, one thing the president-elect mentioned yesterday was using the Defense Production Act to ramp up the production of a particular type of syringes that allow us to get six doses of the vaccine out of a vial instead of five.”
Biden’s vaccination point man, Jeff Zients, described the plan in four elements: Loosen restrictions on who can get vaccinated and when, set up more vaccination sites, mobilize rapid delivery, and invoke the Defense Production Act to produce more doses quickly.
Biden and Zients plan to use FEMA and National Guard troops to build the network of vaccination sites across the nation that will include big box stores as well as CVS and Walgreens. “We’re going to throw the full resources and weight of the federal government behind this emergency,” Zients promised.
Therein lies the flaw of the Trump administration: It sought to rely on the 50 states to provide logistics, distribute and publicize the process to a frightened and partially leery public. It helped produce the vaccine in less than a year, but relegated the next critical step — to actually vaccinate Americans — to states, many which are cash-strapped due to the economic fallout of the pandemic.
While Vice President Pence, Azar and Dr. Tony Fauci took doses as cameras rolled, President Trump did not, focusing his attention on overturning the election. Now we face a scenario where 60% of all COVID-19 infections have occurred since Election Day. The commander-in-chief was Missing In Action.
The Biden plan seemed like an exercise in common sense, asset management and not rocket science.
Had the Trump administration been fully engaged in logistics and messaging, fewer Americans would be dead and the economy would have recovered sooner. The key question today is whether the Biden administration will be more competent.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.