Even as the country enters a grim winter, with COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths surging, there is real reason for hope on the horizon: After nine months of the pandemic, healthcare workers and vulnerable populations in the United States in the coming weeks are set to begin receiving vaccinations, which are expected to gradually reach the broader population as we move further into 2021. We’re not getting out of this nightmare tomorrow, but a timeline is coming into view, which is more than we could say in the uncertain early days of this crisis.
The carelessness and incompetence of Donald Trump and his administration, though, is complicating the path out of the pandemic they’ve done nothing but compound since the outset. The president has politicized public health and otherwise ignored the crisis as cases soar, giving up on mitigation efforts while counting on the emergence of a vaccine to bring things to an end. But as it turns out, he wasn’t even prepared for that—the thing he’s been touting as our ticket out of this mess—having reportedly turned down Pfizer’s offers over the summer to set aside more doses of the vaccine it was developing, which is now one of two set for emergency approval.
The administration insists that won’t foul up the distribution timeline. Trump signed a piece of paper Tuesday to “ensure that Americans have priority access to COVID-19 vaccines,” which confounded even his vaccine development chief, and suggested in a self-congratulatory summit that “every American who wants” a vaccination will be able to receive one by spring. “They say it’s somewhat of a miracle,” he said. “And I think that’s true.” But the administration���s poor preparation could make that difficult, if not impossible, with the country potentially facing vaccine shortages until the summer, unless others in development are found to be effective and approved in the interim.
“We’re clearly not going to get there” with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines alone, Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, told Politico. “We’re going to need four or five different vaccines.”
That’s not impossible. A number of vaccine candidates, including one by Johnson & Johnson, are being tested. A shot by AstraZeneca and Oxford University has shown promise, but testing and communication issues has shaken confidence in the potential vaccine and slowed its path to approval. Having more safe, effective vaccines become available in the coming months will require a lot to go right, but the success of the vaccine race has already exceeded expectations. It’s possible that the U.S. will be able to stick with its optimistic timeline, as Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed, remains confident it can. “We feel that we can deliver the vaccines as needed,” he said on Good Morning America Wednesday.
But even he seemed to acknowledge that if it does meet its goal, it won’t be because of the unenforceable executive order Trump signed Tuesday. “Frankly, I don’t know, and frankly, I’m staying out of this. I can’t comment,” he said when asked about Trump’s order. “I literally don’t know.”
BREAKING: Pressed by @GStephanopoulos to explain Pres. Trump's executive order prioritizing Americans’ access to COVID-19 vaccines before the United States helps other countries, "Operation Warp Speed" Chief Science Adviser Dr. Moncef Slaoui says, "Frankly I don't know." pic.twitter.com/Wk7ElJKDaw
— Good Morning America (@GMA) December 8, 2020
Like much of what Trump has done during this pandemic, that order was almost entirely symbolic, a gesture to make it look like he’s doing something while other, more serious people take real action. That actual work of scientists has resulted in at least two vaccines now that could help bring an end to the worst public health crisis in a century is cause for hope. But distributing those vaccines will be a massive, complicated endeavor, and as long as Trump is in charge, the logistical puzzle will only be more challenging to solve.
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