Written by Michael D. Shear, Apoorva Mandavilli, and Jill Cowan
The Trump administration’s top health officials outlined an ambitious timetable Sunday for distributing the first coronavirus vaccinations to as many as 24 million people by mid-January, even as the accelerating toll of the pandemic filled more hospital beds across the United States and prompted new shutdown orders in much of California.
After criticism from President-elect Joe Biden that the administration had “no detailed” vaccine distribution plan, Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s vaccine development program, said all residents of long-term care facilities and health workers could receive the first round of vaccinations by mid-January.
A vaccine manufactured by Pfizer could be available by the end of the week, after anticipated approval by the Food and Drug Administration, Slaoui said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, was just as optimistic.
“Really within days,” Azar said on Fox News Sunday. “Within 24 hours of FDA green lighting with authorization, we’ll ship to all of the states and territories that we work with. And within hours, they can be vaccinating.”
But the hopeful comments were met with some skepticism as they played out against an increasingly desperate backdrop, with the virus surging across the country and packing hospitals to near capacity with critically ill patients. On Friday, more than 229,000 new cases were reported in the United States, a record, and several states hit new daily highs over the weekend. More than 101,000 COVID-19 patients are in hospitals now, double the number from just a month ago.
Health experts said the timeline sketched out by Slaoui and Azar was uncompromising and did not account for the possibility of delay during the many steps from vaccine manufacture to distribution at state and local levels, not to mention the hesitancy that many people might feel about taking a newly approved vaccine.
“To meet those kinds of aggressive timelines, all the stars would have to align,” said Dr. Peter J. Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
Slaoui said his team charged with distributing the vaccine was scheduled Monday to brief advisers to Biden, who complained last week that there was “no detailed plan that we’ve seen, anyway, as to how you get the vaccine out of a container, into an injection syringe, into somebody’s arm.”
Azar disputed Biden’s remarks.
“With all respect, that’s just nonsense,” he said. “We have comprehensive plans from the CDC, working with 64 public health jurisdictions across the country, as our governors have laid out very detailed plans that we’ve worked with them on.”
At a rally in Georgia on Saturday night, President Donald Trump once again claimed that the country was “rounding the corner” in dealing with the pandemic, a statement at odds with scenes in communities across the country, where doctors and nurses are struggling to cope with more cases of the virus than ever before.
On Sunday afternoon, Trump announced on Twitter that his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has led the president’s efforts to overturn the results of the election, had tested positive for the virus.
In California, under orders issued Thursday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, residents across the southern and central parts of the state were directed not to leave their homes for three weeks starting at 11:59 p.m. Sunday, joining parts of the San Francisco Bay Area in shuttering outdoor dining and bars, closing schools and roping off playgrounds.
Daily case reports have tripled in the last month in California, where more than 25,000 new infections were reported Saturday. Los Angeles County, with more than 8,900 new cases, broke its record for the third straight day.
At the UC San Diego Medical Center, just six of 112 intensive care beds were unoccupied Sunday, and doctors expressed concern that an extended crisis would put extreme pressure on nurses and doctors.
“It’s more about the duration,” said Dr. Chris Longhurst, the hospital’s associate chief medical officer. “If the surge were 48 hours, it would be all hands on deck and we’d all be there to take care of them, and then we could get through it. What you can’t manage is a sustained surge.”
Before Sunday, much of California was already under a curfew prohibiting residents from leaving their homes to do nonessential work or to gather from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. The governor’s order required regions in the state to be placed under new restrictions once their intensive care unit availability fell below 15%.
With capacity at 6.6% in the San Joaquin Valley and 10.3% in Southern California on Sunday, shops there must operate at limited capacity and private gatherings are prohibited. Any open businesses must require everyone inside to wear masks and distance themselves. Among the facilities that must close: hair salons and barbershops; museums, zoos and aquariums; indoor movie theaters; and wineries and breweries.
“I haven’t heard of anybody panicking,” said Rachel Heimann, 25, who lives in San Francisco. “We all want things to go back to normal, and we want people to stop getting sick. This is just a really concrete reminder that things are getting worse.”
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