Feature

U.S. finally hits its stride with COVID-19 vaccination rollouts


 

Each afternoon, Cyrus Shahpar, MD, the data guru for the White House COVID-19 Response Team, sends an email to staffers with the daily count of COVID-19 vaccinations delivered in the United States.

The numbers, collected from states ahead of the final figures being posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, act as a report card of sorts on the team’s efforts.

On Saturday, April 3, it was a new record: 4.1 million vaccinations delivered in a single day, more than the total population of some states.

While the United States has a long way to go before it is done with COVID-19, there’s finally some good news in the nation’s long and blundering slog through the pandemic.

After a rocky start in December 2020 and January 2021, vaccination is happening faster than nearly anyone thought possible. As more people see their friends and family roll up their sleeves, hesitancy is dropping, too.

In settings where large numbers of people are vaccinated, such as nursing homes, COVID-19 cases and deaths have plunged.

Those gains, however, haven’t been shared equally. According to CDC data, 69% of people who are fully vaccinated are White, while just 8% are Black and about 9% are Hispanic, a group that now represents most new COVID-19 cases.

Officials say that’s partly because the vaccines were rolled out to the elderly first. The average life expectancy for Black people in the United States is now age 72, which means there were fewer people of color represented in the first groups to become eligible. Experts are hopeful that underrepresented groups will start to catch up as more states open up vaccinations to younger people.

Based on overall numbers of daily vaccine doses, the United States ranks third, behind China and India. America ranks fourth – behind Israel, the United Kingdom, and Chile – in the total share of the population that’s been vaccinated, according to the website Our World in Data.

A positive development

It’s a stunning turnaround for a country that failed for months to develop effective tests, and still struggles in some quarters to investigate new cases and quarantine their contacts.

The 7-day rolling average of vaccines administered in the United States is currently more than 3 million a day.

“We knew that we needed to get to 3 million a day at some point, if we were going to get most people vaccinated this year, but I don’t think that most people expected it to happen this early,” said Eric Toner, MD, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore.

Before taking office, President Joe Biden pledged to get 100 million shots in arms within his first 100 days in office. After hitting that goal in late March, he doubled it, to 200 million vaccinations by April 30. After first saying all adults should be eligible to get in line for the vaccine by May 1, on April 6, he bumped up that date to April 19.

Some media reports have seen this repeated moving of the goalposts as calculated – an unstated strategy of underpromising and overdelivering with the aim of rebuilding public trust.

But others pointed out that, even if that’s true, the goals being set aren’t easy, and hitting them has never been a given.

“I think the Biden administration really gets a lot of credit for pushing the companies to get more vaccine out faster than they had planned to,” Dr. Toner said. “And the states have really responded as well as the federal government in terms of getting vaccination sites going. So we’re not only getting the vaccines, we’re getting it into people’s arms faster than expected.”

Others agree.

“We’re doing an amazing job, and I think the U.S. is really beginning to bend the curve,” said Carlos del Rio, MD, an infectious disease specialist and distinguished professor of medicine at Emory University, Atlanta.

“I think overall it’s just that everybody’s putting in a ton of work to get it done,” he said.

On April 3, the day the United States hit its vaccination record, he was volunteering to give vaccinations.

“I mean, of all the bad things we do to people as clinicians, this is one thing that people are very happy about, right?” Dr. del Rio said.

He said he vaccinated a young woman who asked if she could video chat with her mom, who was feeling nervous about getting the shot. He answered her mom’s questions, and later that day, she came down to be vaccinated herself.

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