Can someone get some paper and a pen or pencil and start taking some notes? We need a checklist of what to do when rolling out a new vaccine to an entire country. Because while we’ve done this before, apparently the notes got lost or the dog ate them or something happened to them because we’re not doing a very good job at it.
First on the list: Make sure we order enough for everyone. States are saying they aren’t getting enough doses of the vaccines. In Alabama, the Department of Health has come under fire by some legislators for not getting the vaccine in the arms of people fast enough. But Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris and Governor Kay Ivey said the bigger issue in getting the vaccine distributed is the lack of supply.
“We simply do not have enough vaccine for everyone who wants one,” said Ivey. “In fact, no state does.”
Alabama has problems it needs to address to get the vaccine in arms faster, but that there isn’t enough vaccine to go around is also true.
Tom Denny, CEO of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, told WBHM this week that the blame lies mostly at the federal level.
“I think the flaw was that planning was left to states and individual municipalities, or areas, to do this,” Denny said. “And, you know, some things are best done locally, but they need resources to do it.”
We should have learned this lesson with the polio vaccine. It wasn’t until after the Salk vaccine was approved for use that the federal government even began to discuss a distribution plan with the states. By that time, nearly all the available vaccine was committed to the National Foundation, which funded Salk’s research.
Then, the federal government’s distribution plan, or lack thereof, was dubbed the “hobble” program after Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Secretary Oveta Culp Hobby. In their upcoming biography of Hobby – a political powerhouse from Texas and organizer of Women’s Army Corp (WAC) in World War II – father-daughter writing duo Catherine and Robert Pando, Ph.D., note, “Hobby’s early decision not to invest in early production or develop a distribution plan left parents not knowing if they would have to wait a week, a month or longer to vaccinate their children.”
In a hearing before the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, where Hobby had been summoned to explain the “Great Vaccine Mess,” she brought her government career to a screeching halt when she told senators that the delay in getting a distribution plan into action was because the vaccine was “unique in medical history . . . No one could have foreseen the public demand.” It seems hard to believe that she couldn’t foresee parents willing to take their chances on an unknown vaccine over the known devastation of polio.
You would also think a gaffe that big would be the kind of thing that would linger like a bad odor in the halls of Washington, D.C., where the balance of power can rest precariously on the outcome of these types of decisions.
Yet, here we are, far behind where we should be in getting the COVID-19 vaccine into arms, making many of the same errors that cost Hobby her cabinet position.
According to Harris, part of the problem is in production, namely obtaining the materials needed to create and administer the vaccine. Hopefully, President Biden’s executive order invoking the Defense Production Act will help overcome that obstacle.
Let’s also hope someone in Washington is taking notes on how to organize and manage a nation-wide vaccine rollout. It seems like 65 years is too short a time to have forgotten the mistakes made the last time we did this. Next time – and there will likely be a next time – it would be great to get it right from the start.