covid vaccines

Vaccine Reserves the White House Released This Week Don’t Exist

HHS secretary Alex Azar will soon be gone. Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock

On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced that it was going to release the supply of COVID-19 vaccine doses it was holding in reserve to be used as second shots, days after President-elect Joe Biden announced his plan to do the same. But there is no reserve anymore, the Washington Post reported Friday: The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed in charge of vaccine production had already begun shipping out that stockpile of second doses since the end of December.

The Post story is but the latest scandal in the thus-far disastrous U.S. rollout of COVID-19 vaccines — and it wasn’t the only damning report to come out on Friday regarding the Trump administration’s mishandling of the rollout. According to The Wall Street Journal, Operation Warp Speed leaders waited two months to move forward on a CDC plan to start helping states prepare for the mass vaccination campaign.

Regarding the depleted vaccine stockpile, the Post didn’t report any details about why the Trump administration made its (apparently bullshit) announcement on Tuesday, but the article did note the effect:

Now, health officials across the country who had anticipated their extremely limited vaccine supply as much as doubling beginning next week are confronting the reality that their allocations will not immediately increase, dashing hopes of dramatically expanding access for millions of elderly people and those with high-risk medical conditions. Health officials in some cities and states were informed in recent days about the reality of the situation, while others are still in the dark.

Because both of the vaccines authorized for emergency use in the United States are two-dose regimens, the Trump administration’s initial policy was to hold back second doses to protect against the possibility of manufacturing disruptions. But that approach shifted in recent weeks, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. The result is that next week’s allocations will remain flat.

Operation Warp Speed leaders apparently made the shift after becoming more confident about the vaccine supply chain, believing that they would be able to rely on the two vaccine manufacturers to supply the second doses states needed as booster shots directly off the factory line, negating the need for a federally withheld stockpile. To be clear, it appears that states will still be able to get the second doses they need moving forward, but they have not, and will not, be getting additional doses of the vaccine as the Trump administration indicated they would.

Outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar originally opposed the Biden plan to release the supposed stockpile to be used as first doses, commenting that the policy change was shortsighted and could mean Americans who had already received their first dose of one of the two-dose vaccines would not be able to get their second dose on time. Then, a few days later, Azar announced that the Trump administration would go ahead and do that before Biden was even in office, yet failed to acknowledge that it already had. And as the Post report highlights, the omission is particularly galling since Azar and CDC director Robert Redfield also announced and promoted a new federal guidance greatly expanding who should be eligible to receive the vaccine first:

[Azar] did not say the original policy had already been phased out, or that the stockpile had been exhausted. Signaling to states that they would soon see expanded supply, he also urged them to begin vaccinating adults 65 and older and those under 64 with a high-risk medical condition. Officials in some states embraced that directive, while others said suddenly putting hundreds of thousands of additional people at the front of the line would overwhelm their capacity.

Other federal officials then had to walk back Azar’s announcement to state and local health officials and explain that they would not, in fact, be getting higher allocations of doses as a result of the policy change — which, again, had already been made but never announced weeks prior. Furthermore, the new eligibility guidance Azar and Redfield announced on Tuesday, to move people over the age of 65 into phase 1B of the vaccine rollout (from phase 2, where they originally were) still hasn’t been made official on the CDC website — and it’s not clear why.

Without additional vaccine supply on the way, some state and local authorities have now been forced to suspend their plans to begin vaccinating the expanded segment of the population, the Post reports.

The other announcement Azar made Tuesday, that starting in two weeks states would be rewarded with priority allocations of vaccine doses based on how fast they have been able to administer them, has also prompted confusion and controversy. The Post notes that Connecticut announced it was receiving 50,000 doses next week as a result of that policy. West Virginia, which has administered vaccine doses faster than any other state, according to the CDC, is not receiving additional doses. So putting aside the fact that Azar announced a policy that would not come into effect until after he and the Trump administration were no longer holding the reins of the vaccine rollout (and the incoming Biden administration has already signaled it does want to pursue vaccine distribution policies that punish states), the policy appears to have taken immediate effect, yet wasn’t applied universally.

Unfortunately, sowing confusion continues to be a hallmark of the Trump administration’s pandemic response, even in its final days. And over the summer it also held back on working with states to develop their vaccination plans, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday:

The CDC had wanted to start helping states plan in June how to get people vaccinated. But officials at Operation Warp Speed rebuffed the agency’s plan for distributing vaccines. They adopted a similar plan in August only after exploring other options — and then held the release of the CDC’s playbook for states for two weeks for additional clearance and to put it out with another document, the officials said.

Operation Warp Speed was supposed to be a high-water mark of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, but it stumbled at the finish line because of problems in federal planning and foresight. Now, the public-private partnership is scrambling to speed up vaccinations, adjusting eligibility guidelines while states race to increase their abilities to administer doses on a large scale.

“They didn’t plan for the last inch of the last mile, the part that matters most — how you’re going to actually vaccinate that many people quickly,” said Dr. Bruce Gellin, a former Health and Human Services vaccine official and president of global immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute.

Now the Biden administration is going to have to try to repair the biggest vaccine rollout operation in American history as it takes over driving it. Transition officials said Friday that Biden is naming former FDA chief Dr. David Kessler as the new top science official at Operation Warp Speed. Also on Friday, incoming White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki announced that the name “Operation Warp Speed” was following the Trump administration out the door, citing an “urgent need to address the failures of the Trump team approach to vaccine distribution.” The Biden administration will apparently refer to its vaccine distribution simply as “COVID response” moving forward, though Bloomberg News reported Friday that ditching “Warp Speed” may not just be a matter of reputation:

One Biden official said it’s less about abandoning Trump’s brand name and more that the “Warp Speed” effort — getting a vaccine approved — is considered complete. Trump’s administration has used “Warp Speed” to describe both development and distribution of vaccines, but the latter effort has fallen far short of goals the government set earlier this year.

Bloomberg adds that there is also some concern within the Biden team that calling the vaccine-development program “Warp Speed” has exacerbated (unfounded) fears about the safety of the vaccines since the name highlights how the COVID vaccines were developed and authorized at a record pace. That may be the case, but a clean break — even in name — from anything associated with the Trump administration’s bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic is probably a good idea on its own, too.

Vaccine Reserves White House Released Don’t Exist: Report