New US president takes tougher approach to COVID-19 with more than 25 million Americans now confirmed with virus.
The United States has confirmed more than 25 million cases of coronavirus – the most in the world – as newly inaugurated President Joe Biden’s chief of staff accused Donald Trump’s administration of failing to provide states with a plan to administer much-needed vaccines.
The US accounts for more than a quarter of all global cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The country is hoping vaccines will help curb the disease, but there are reports of state-level snafus in vaccine distribution, and shortages in some parts of the country.
In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, Ron Klain said state-level distribution plans for COVID-19 vaccines “did not really exist” under the previous Trump administration, despite the surge in the pandemic during its final months in office.
“The process to distribute the vaccine, particularly outside of nursing homes and hospitals, out into the community as a whole, did not really exist when we came into the White House,” Biden’s chief of staff said.
While the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed has aided in the development and manufacturing of vaccines, the vaccine roll-out has lagged and the US missed its target of inoculating 20 million people by the end of 2020.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says just about half of the 41.4 million vaccines that have been distributed to US states have been administered so far.
Under Trump, the federal government distributed vaccines to states based on population, with further distribution largely left up to state governments.
Top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, who worked on the coronavirus task force under Trump, on Friday said the previous administration had left too much of the responsibility to the states.
That was echoed by Klain on Sunday. “We’ve seen this factor all over the country where millions of doses have been distributed, but only about half have been given out,” he said.
“So the process of getting that vaccine into arms – that’s the hard process. That’s where we’re behind as a country,” he said. “That’s where we’re focused in the Biden administration – on getting that ramped up.”
Meanwhile, in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Dr Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the Trump administration coronavirus task force, said there members of the former president’s White House who “definitely believed that this was a hoax”.
Biden, who has promised a fierce fight against the pandemic, has set a goal of administering 100 million vaccinations within his first 100 days in office – a figure that some have criticised as not ambitious enough.
He also signed a series of executive orders last week, including some that target vaccine distribution, and said his administration would work with state and local governments to establish additional vaccination sites.
The new administration also plans to deploy thousands of clinical staff from federal agencies, military medical personnel and pharmacy chains to increase vaccinations, and make teachers and grocery clerks eligible.
Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, said on Sunday he would press US senators to pass Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.
“We can’t wait,” White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. “Just because Washington has been gridlocked before doesn’t mean it needs to continue to be gridlocked.”
But state and local leaders remain frustrated with the pace of vaccine distribution, especially as COVID-19 hospitalisations are surging.
More than 40 percent of Americans now live in areas running out of intensive care unit space, with only 15 percent of beds still available, the Associated Press news agency reported.
On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that the largest city in the country is “burning through” its supply of vaccines. “We need more doses immediately,” de Blasio said.
The state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has said just 67 percent of New York healthcare workers have been vaccinated. Without an increase in production, the healthcare system could face further strain, Cuomo added.
In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy said a federal programme within the state to help nursing home residents has distributed only 10 percent of its vaccines.
A significant problem has also been organising vaccine distribution to smaller pharmacies and clinics.
In California, only a handful of independent pharmacies have been able to acquire vaccines for their customers – generally only in rural areas where big chain stores are not present, Sonya Frausto, a pharmacist in the state capital of Sacramento, told Reuters news agency.
Jerry Shapiro, a 78-year-old who owns an independent pharmacy in central Los Angeles, told Reuters he had spent hours over the last month trying to contact health agencies to receive a vaccine, to no avail. He was able to finally make an appointment on Saturday.
Shapiro said his customers have also been calling daily seeking vaccines, but he has to tell them he has no supply.
“Why not make it easy?” asked Shapiro, who is also concerned about his wife because of medical conditions that would make her particularly vulnerable to the virus.
“Have it in your neighbourhood. Set up an appointment, get your shot and be done.”