Operation Warp Speed is living up to its name, but COVID-19 immunizations are going 'slower' than expected, officials say

The federal government is on the verge of shedding 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine in December as promised, but it will take states longer than expected to get those doses into people's arms, officials admitted Wednesday.
About 15.5 million doses will be dispensed by the end of the year, with the remaining 5 million expected to arrive between Jan. 4 and Jan. 6, said General Gus Perna, co-head of Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to develop and disseminate COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests.
But only about 1 million of the 9 million doses distributed so far have been reported as administered, confirmed his co-head Moncef Slaoui during a press conference.
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The death rate from COVID-19 in the US reached an all-time high in the week ending Tuesday, and one American dies from the virus every 32 seconds.
Reporting the shots can take 3-4 days, Slaoui said, so vaccination numbers are likely better than they appear - but there is still a significant delay.
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"Just how fast the vaccinations - gun shots - go up is slower than we expected," said Slaoui.
He offered federal aid to the states to accelerate this process. "It is important that states are able to step up the cadence of the vaccination, but it is also important that they do so at a pace where they are in control that no mistakes are made or accidents happen ", he said. "That's super important."
The delay is likely caused by a variety of factors, including the logistical challenge of starting a new program, the difficulty of administering these vaccines, and the fact that many hospitals are currently almost overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.
"I don't think the rollout went as well as many of us would have hoped," said Dr. Daniel Griffin, Infectious Disease Specialist at ProHEALTH Care in New York.
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At first the shots weren't where the workers needed them, he said. The first week the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine was available, he was offered a shot at 7:30 a.m. in a hospital 45 minutes from his work place. Weekends weren't an option.
This week, the arrival of Moderna's second vaccine made a difference, he said. Griffin, who was treating 30 COVID-19 patients on Wednesday, was able to receive his first two-dose vaccine on the same day.
Griffin said he imagined the vaccinations would be like a flu shot where someone would walk up to him while seeing patients. He would roll up his sleeve and get the vaccination. However, with these vaccines, the vaccinated person must wait 15 minutes to make sure they are not reacting badly.
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He hopes the next round of vaccination, which will be distributed in the community, will go more smoothly than in hospitals, where caring for the sick must be a top priority.
The story is similar in other hospitals.
"I suspect that the efficiency of the system will all increase over time, but I'm not surprised that the injections don't quite keep up with the supply," said Dr. Robert Wachter, chairman of the medical department at the University of California, San Francisco.
UCSF vaccinates about 650-700 people every day, he said. So far, 4,000 workers have received shots from 11,000 cans received.
"You need enough people trained to shoot and a variety of other people to keep track of the river," he said. Before vaccination, people have to sign informed consent forms, which takes a few minutes. Then there is a waiting time of 15 minutes.
Possible side effects of the vaccines also mean hospitals have avoided vaccinating an entire department on the same day to ensure that not all workers are taken off the shelf at the same time, he said.
Delivering the vaccine is a logistical challenge, agrees Dr. Otto Yang zu, professor of infectious diseases at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine.
"There needs to be staff to administer the vaccine, pharmacies set up to store the vaccine and distribute it to the clinic, and scheduling for people to come in and get the vaccine," he said.
Although the pace of vaccination appears to be slow, it's actually surprisingly fast considering the first emergency vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration only 11 days ago, Yang said.
"If you do the math, since FDA approval, assuming an 8-hour work day, including weekends, that's 11,363 doses an hour in this country," he said. "It's hard to imagine that it can be done any faster."
Hospital workers went out of their way to get vaccinated, said Dr. Paul Biddinger, Emergency Preparedness Medical Director, Mass General Brigham, a Boston-based hospital system.
"Our spots fill up as quickly as we get the vaccine and interest remains very high," he said.
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Also on Wednesday, Slaoui said studies will soon begin to see if the Moderna vaccine could be stretched through lower doses. Right now, people are getting 100 micrograms in each of two doses, he said, but early evidence suggests the 50 microgram dose might be equally effective.
Although a single dose of the vaccine seems very effective, he warned people not to get just one shot. A second dose usually trains the immune system to fight off a disease longer, so protection from a shot probably won't last as long, he said.
Experts say the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine range from pain to fatigue.
Johnson & Johnson is testing a vaccine that can be given in just one dose. Her large study is now fully enrolled and the first evidence of its effectiveness should be in within a few weeks, Slaoui said. If this vaccine proves safe and effective, it will likely receive FDA approval in February, adding 100 million doses to US supplies.
A vaccine candidate developed by AstraZeneca in collaboration with Oxford University is also close to fully commencing its crucial American study. Approval is expected to take place in late February or early March if it proves safe and effective.
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Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech each have promised to ship 100 million doses in the first quarter of 2021 and an additional 100 million each in the second quarter.
If all of these doses come through, the adult population will be more than covered by next summer, Slaoui said, noting that most of the 80 million Americans under the age of 18 may have to wait until later in the summer because trials with teenagers are required to be completed before vaccine makers expand their studies to younger children. The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine is approved for use in 16 to 17 year olds.
Slaoui and Perna ended their talks on Wednesday with thanks to everyone involved in the development, manufacture and supply of the vaccines, as well as to those who volunteered for the clinical trials.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you to the men and women who are on the front lines in our hospitals, emergency rooms, intensive care units - the doctors, the nurses, the people who support them 24/7, the people who are really on the front lines there are lines, "said Perna. "Our hats are away from everything they do."
Featuring: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY
Contact Karen Weintraub at kweintraub@usatoday.com.
US TODAY health and patient safety coverage is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide any editorial contributions.
This article originally appeared in the US TODAY: COVID-19 Vaccines Going "Slower" Than Expected: Officials
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