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SPEEDY RECOVERY

Three ways Biden can keep the US on track for a new normal by summer

US President Biden walks down the hall to give an address. He is on a red carpet and surrounded by many flags.
Reuters/Tom Brenner
A man with a plan.
  • Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

Published Last updated

In Dec. 2020, then US-president elect Joe Biden announced his goal to vaccinate 100 million people in the US within his first 100 days in office. By the time his inauguration rolled around, the US was well on its way to meeting that goal, with several days of vaccinating 1 million people under its belt—the daily number required to hit 100 million in 100 days.

But on Thursday, (March 11), fewer than 50 days into his term, Biden stated in a primetime speech that his administration is on track to overshoot its initial target. Americans could “mark our independence from this virus” by July 4, he said, when there is a “good chance” vaccinations could be administered to the rest of the nearly 200 million adults who have yet to get them.

In order to achieve that goal, the Biden administration will have to ensure three things happen smoothly.

More vaccines in the making

The first problem was the supply. While Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have been hustling to manufacture more of their vaccines to meet demand, the real game-changer was the US Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.  This vaccine requires one shot, instead of two, which makes it much easier to administer. Though it appears to be less effective against mild cases in clinical trials (roughly 66% of those vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine did not develop symptoms compared to up to 95% protection with other vaccines), it prevented about 85% of recipients from contracting severe cases of Covid-19—which could significantly lower hospital loads.

Already, Biden has worked with the drug company Merck to manufacture even more Johnson & Johnson vaccines, invoking the Defense Production Act to accelerate production. Merck was competing with Johnson & Johnson until it aborted its plans to develop its own Covid-19 vaccine after disappointing clinical trials. But that also means it’s perfectly positioned to manufacture a vaccine—even if a rival company’s.

By now, the US has ordered enough supplies to give all adults at least one shot by the end of May. But just in case, after forging the collaboration, the administration purchased 100 million more vaccines from the two pharmaceutical giants.

Streamlined registrations

In his speech, Biden recognized inconsistent registration and prioritization criteria have delayed getting enough vaccines into arms. Because public health programs are overseen by individual states, each one has been prioritizing adults with various health conditions on their own.

But Biden’s administration plans to use the authority of the Department of Health and Human Service to require all states, tribes, and, territories to make all adults eligible for vaccines no later than May 1.  By that time, he’s also pledged to have an easy-to-use vaccine finder and toll-free telephone number to help people find the most convenient places to actually receive their shots. That will be an IT challenge: at the moment, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Finder only has Covid-19 vaccine information for some states, because of inconsistent reporting data.

More vaccination stations

Access to vaccination space is the last issue keeping slowing vaccination rates down. To overcome this obstacle, Biden announced that his administration will double the number of federally-run community vaccination sites managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the military, and is deploying 4,000 additional troops to help run these sites, bringing the total to 6,000. It also plans to add 10,000 more pharmacies working with the federal government to distribute vaccines, bringing the number to 20,000.

There need to be enough people capable of administering all these shots. Similar to the UK, the US plans to mobilize an entirely new cohort of qualified individuals capable of giving needle injections to adults, including veterinarians, medical students, dentists, and even midwives. Starting in mid-March, individuals can check whether or not their eligible to perform vaccinations online through the Department of Health and Human Services

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