America Wants to Know: Where Are Our COVID-19 Vaccines?

Patrice Harris, MD, Everyday Health’s medical editor in chief, talked to CNN about why the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been so slow and suggested ways our country can pick up the pace.

With close to 4,000 Americans dying of COVID-19 every day, and concerns growing about more-contagious variants of the coronavirus, there’s a drastic need for a coordinated, comprehensive plan to get “vaccines in arms,” according to Patrice A. Harris, MD, the medical editor in chief of Everyday Health and a past president of the American Medical Association.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is “absolutely continuing to go in the wrong direction,” said Dr. Harris, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Sunday night. Addressing the COVID-19 surge on the West Coast, she said, “We are setting records in California. They are looking at crisis standards of care, and we do need an all-in effort.”

Also interviewed by Blitzer was Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, a professor and the dean of tropical medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who described the current COVID-19 situation in the United States as “a full-on homeland security crisis for the nation.”

“We now have to vaccinate what I estimate [is] about 1 to 2 million Americans every day from now over the next eight months in order to get 240 million Americans vaccinated, or three-quarters of the population,” said Dr. Hotez. So far Americans have received only about 6.4 million doses, he said.

COVID-19 Vaccination Effort Needs to Dramatically Improve

Major changes in how vaccines are distributed and administered are essential, Hotez and Harris stated. Here are their proposals.

Dramatically increase the number of vaccination sites. Pharmacy chains and hospitals have stepped up, but it won’t be enough, said Hotez.

Vaccination efforts have made some progress by using large and adequately staffed venues, said Hotez. “We did a beta test of that in Houston. Mayor Turner here in Houston opened up Minute Maid Park, where the Astros play, and it was quite successful; we got 3,000 people vaccinated in a single day.”

Harris concurred, saying, “We need these mass vaccination sites. In fact, just this past Friday, I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine at a drive-through mass site here in DeKalb County [Georgia]. In Fulton County, we have a mass vaccination site at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.”  

Get rid of complicated rules. According to Hotez, overly complex protocols have compromised vaccination efforts as well as other aspects of the U.S. response to COVID-19, including diagnostic testing. “We’ve got to be able to give a vaccine to anyone who wants it. We cannot handle fussy regulations — nobody understands it,” he said. Reports of vaccine doses being discarded because people didn’t meet all the criteria are totally unacceptable, said Hotez.

“It is absolutely tragic to be throwing any vaccine away, and I also agree it’s a bit complicated right now,” said Harris. Currently, each state has its own process, and for the public these processes are frustrating and complicated, and need to be simplified, she said.

“I think the president-elect has a good plan … we need an all-hands-on-deck moment here. We’ve always needed a coordinated, comprehensive plan — we need it more than ever now,” said Harris.

Develop more vaccines and more types of vaccines. “The mRNA [messenger RNA] technology is not robust enough to do the whole job; we’ve known that from the beginning,” said Hotez about the genetic underpinnings of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines approved for emergency use in December by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). We need other types of vaccines, such as the adenovirus-based kind, he said.MORE ON CORONAVIRUS

Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson both have adenovirus vaccines in phase 3 clinical testing. The advantage of this type of vaccine is that it is more stable than an mRNA vaccine and doesn’t have to be stored at really low temperatures, which has slowed production and led to the waste of some doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at ultra-low freezing temperatures, well below what’s found in a standard freezer. The Moderna vaccine also needs to be frozen for long-term stability, but unlike the Pfizer vaccine, it can be kept in a standard refrigerator for a few weeks, according to Houston Methodist Health System.

The U.S. Is Falling Short Compared With Other Countries

Blitzer pointed out that Israel, a country of about 8 million people, has already vaccinated approximately 2 million people. “What are they doing right and we’re doing wrong?” he asked Hotez.

Israel’s National Health System allows for a more coordinated effort than the United States has been able to accomplish, explained Hotez. “We have pharmacy chains, we have hospital chains, and we have allowed our public health system to decline, whereas in Israel, it’s well-suited for these kinds of mass types of initiatives,” he said.

Although the United States has squandered opportunities to control the virus and continues to flounder, Hotez believes that we can — and must — do better. “This is crunch time. If we don’t do this, we could lose hundreds of thousands more American lives,” he said. 

Article first posted on EveryDayHealth

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