The U.S. Vaccination Effort Is Speeding Up — Fast

An employee with the McKesson Corporation scans a box of the Johnson and Johnson COVID vaccine. Photo: Timothy D. Easley-Pool/Getty Images

The arrival of two COVID-19 vaccines in December seemed to suggest a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, but supply and distribution bottlenecks limited how many shots reached arms, leaving people frustrated as they tried and failed to find appointments. Since then, only 15 percent of the U.S. population has been vaccinated.

But things are starting to change — and fast — as vaccine supplies boom and the number of shots being administered skyrockets.

The U.S. is currently administering over 1.94 million shots a day on average, up from just over 1 million per day at the beginning of February. In New York City, thousands of Brooklynites lined up over the weekend to get their jabs at a vaccination hub at Medgar Evers College, while thousands more appointment slots opened up across the city. With retail pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS now offering on-site vaccinations and more federally run FEMA vaccination clinics opening across the country, the vaccine is finally becoming accessible to more people.

That has been made possible large part because of a steady increase in supply, which is set to grow dramatically over the next month. This past weekend, the Food and Drug Administration authorized use of Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine — the company says it will deliver close to 4 million doses this week, with the promise of shipping another 16 million by the end of the month. Those numbers will likely get a massive boost from the deal President Biden announced on Tuesday to have Johnson & Johnson rival Merck offer up two facilities to help increase production of the one-dose jabs. And, after a storm-related lull in late February, Pfizer says it will deliver 120 million doses for its two-shot regimen by the end of March, while Moderna has said it will supply 100 million doses for two shots by then. Between the three companies, that means enough vaccines to fully innoculate 130 million people should be delivered in March — more than the 96 million doses administered in past three months combined. While the supply will take more than March to make it into people’s arms, it will edge the country closer toward protecting the 70 or 80 percent of the U.S. population required to achieve the “herd immunity” tipping point against COVID-19.

On Tuesday afternoon, Biden said there will be enough vaccine produced for every adult in the U.S. by the end of May.

According to Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and infection preventionist at George Washington University, this is a significant advancement in advancing the nation’s efforts to get adequate vaccine supply. Now that supply isn’t severely limited, attention is switching to whether states are prepared to massively expand their vaccination capacity. “What we’re seeing now is that as we are really increasing our production, it becomes more about the physical distribution of the vaccine,” she told Intelligencer.

“I’m hopeful that as we become less reliant on public-health and health-care vaccination sites, it will become more widely available across multiple venues and less about straining a handful of distribution sites,” she added.

While the end of the pandemic may be in sight, it isn’t over by a long shot. Even as vaccine doses are being rolled out faster, manufacturers are preparing to modify them in an effort to protect the public against the worrying variants that have sprung up. The virus has already taken the lives of half a million Americans and approximately 2,000 people die per day. And after several weeks of decline, COVID-19 cases now appear to be stalling at around 70,000 new cases per day — higher than the summer’s peak. And since cases and hospitalizations have fallen sharply in recent months, states are rolling back public-health measures put in place to protect people from the virus. “Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on Monday.

The U.S. Vaccination Effort Is Speeding Up — Fast