Covid Vaccine Distribution Woes Blamed on Poor Communication

  • Covid vaccine supply unpredictable, state health officials say
  • Federal data system found to be unreliable

The supply of Covid-19 vaccines to states has been uneven and unpredictable, confusing vaccination plans across the U.S., public health officials warned Tuesday.

Last-minute changes and conflicting messages from the White House, starting during the Trump administration, have caused some states to cancel vaccination appointments and then rush to distribute Covid-19 vaccines, state health officials told lawmakers. States want more doses and greater predictability in what’s coming.

Clear communication about how many doses will be available will help end confusion among many Americans about when they’ll get access to a vaccine, they said. It would also make it easier to set up mass vaccination clinics.

“Our main ask is for more doses and if possible greater predictability in our weekly allotment, which simply helps our ability to plan,” Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight panel.

Reduced or postponed shipments of vaccines have been commonplace, Ngozi Ezike, director of Illinois’s Department of Public Health, said.

“From the very beginning vaccination efforts in Illinois were hampered by conflicting federal messaging and, in some case, no messaging,” Ezike said in her written testimony to the committee.

Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images
A health-care worker administers a Covid-19 vaccine at a drive-through at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium on Feb. 1, 2021.

States have been getting more doses, but distribution has been complicated by the lack of clear communication from the White House, officials said.

In the U.S. 32.8 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered as of Feb. 1, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker. The U.S. has reached an average rate of 1.34 million doses given per day. That average has more than doubled since Jan. 10, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Bolstering Vaccinations

President Joe Biden has made improving distribution of the vaccine a central goal to his strategy for battling the Covid-19 pandemic. Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief proposal includes a request for $20 billion to bolster vaccination through community health centers and mobile clinics.

The Biden administration is also launching a program to provide vaccines directly to pharmacies.

States will get information about how many vaccine doses they’ll get roughly three weeks in advance, the Biden administration said Tuesday. It’s part of an effort to be more transparent about vaccine supply so states stop holding back first doses to make sure they have enough for second doses.

Inconsistent shipments and communication issues during the Trump administration prompted some states to create a reserve of shots to ensure they had enough vaccine to give people second doses within a roughly three-week time frame.

“Historically there had been fluctuation. We’ve been very tuned in to not having that fluctuation,” Jeffrey Zients, Biden’s Covid-19 response coordinator, told reporters.

Pandemic Response Legislation

Democratic leaders in Congress this week charged committee leaders with designing legislation to shore up the pandemic response and provide economic relief.

Congress has appropriated more than $60 billion for the development, production, and distribution of medical countermeasures, including vaccines, in response to the spread of Covid-19.

Democrats blamed the Trump administration for much of the confusion, saying the previous administration didn’t lay out a strong federal plan for distributing vaccines.

However, officials say some of the problems of late 2020 have lingered in 2021, and public health departments are still struggling to prepare for the future.

Ezike asked for improvements to the Tiberius platform — software created under Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s program to speed up the creation of Covid-19 vaccines — to gather and display data related to manufacturing and supply of vaccines and related products such as syringes. She said the software needs to include more precise and timely information.

States need accurate projections of how much vaccine they’ll receive in coming weeks to prepare their distribution programs, Ezike said.

In Louisiana, state officials notify health-care providers about how many vaccine doses are available about four days before they’re shipped out, Courtney Phillips, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health, said. This limited their ability to schedule vaccination appointments to only a few weeks, she said.

With assistance from Jacquie Lee

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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