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There Are Signs Of Progress In The Battle Against COVID-19

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are still more than 3,000 people dying from coronavirus every day here in this country. There is a sign of progress, though. The number of new cases is declining significantly. Vaccines are the key to making sure that trend continues. But getting the vaccines where they need to go has been problematic. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. We're going to start with some numbers. About 22 million shots have been given, which is good. That's about half of the total doses that have been distributed across the country, though. So you've got 20 million other doses available. And yet some cities and hospitals say they're running out of the vaccine. How is this disconnect - explain this.

AUBREY: Right, OK. So I know it sounds counterintuitive, but there are actually two things happening at once, right? OK, so manufacturing is accelerating. Pfizer and Moderna have distributed more than 40 million doses around the country to every county, every state. But many more people are now eligible to get the shot at a time when states are just figuring out logistically, Rachel, how to scale this up. And that's creating a bottleneck. I mean, some places are doing better than others. I spoke to Dr. Marc Boom. He's CEO of Houston Methodist, part of the colossal Texas Medical Center system. Now, they're using doses as fast as they can receive them, but it's not enough.

MARC BOOM: Each week, we run out waiting for our next shipment. It's really a supply constraint issue. We coordinate across our cities about doing this as quickly as possible. So we're confident we can do this as a community. It's just a matter of getting more supply more quickly.

AUBREY: So at this moment, the vaccines are still - think of them as a scarce resource, and that creates anxiety. It creates confusion.

MARTIN: Right. And this helps account for all these stories we're hearing about people who get an appointment to get the vaccine, and then they get a phone call or an email saying, your appointment's been canceled or postponed. So, I mean, can the vaccine makers just produce more? Can they produce enough to help meet the demand and the Biden administration's goal of 100 million doses in 100 days?

AUBREY: Well, you know, administration officials think so. And look. To be fair, even as the new administration came in last week, about a million doses a day were already being administered, which is what's needed to meet that goal if we stay on track. But there are now lots of headwinds to keep this going. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on NBC yesterday there are multiple challenges.

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RON KLAIN: This is a very complex process that needs help on all fronts. We need more vaccine. We need more vaccinators. We need more vaccination sites.

MARTIN: So he's saying there's a lot of challenges there, including the need to produce more vaccines, huh?

AUBREY: That's right. We got to go back to that. I mean, Pfizer and Moderna need to deliver millions of more doses per week, Rachel, to stay on track. And this is tricky. These companies have to scale up factory capacity, deal with supply chain issues. And remember this is brand-new. It's the first time mRNA technology has been used at this massive scale. I spoke to Dr. Josh Sharfstein of Johns Hopkins University, and he's being considered for the top post at the FDA. He says given how complicated this is, the urgency, Moderna, Pfizer and other companies may need help, including maybe the use of the Defense Production Act to boost shortfalls.

JOSH SHARFSTEIN: Just hoping that the companies alone will come through may not be enough. And so one of the key aspects of the Biden plan is to roll up the government's sleeves and say, how can we make sure you have the supplies you need, the machines you need and potentially even expand your production capacity?

AUBREY: So big picture here, Rachel, this is going to take some time, many months.

MARTIN: I mean, another potential challenge occurs to me. What about folks who've gotten their first dose, right? This is a two-dose vaccine. So they've gotten the first shot.

AUBREY: That's right.

MARTIN: But what if they can't get the second shot on time? Is that OK?

AUBREY: Well, the CDC says the second dose should be administered as close to the recommended interval as possible, which is three weeks for the Pfizer vaccine, four weeks for the Moderna vaccine. However, if this isn't feasible, the agency says the second dose can be delayed, administered up to 42 days after the first dose. I spoke to physician Gabe Kelen at Johns Hopkins University about this. He's overseeing the vaccine distribution there at the university.

GABE KELEN: So in their preliminary studies, you know, when they looked at, well, what is the shortest reasonable time to give a booster? - it turned out to be three weeks and four weeks. That doesn't mean that giving the booster at six weeks isn't just as effective for longer-term immunity.

AUBREY: You know, he says there's limited data here, so no one knows exactly how long this can extend out, but it makes good sense that there's wiggle room here.

MARTIN: So we're into the second week of a new administration. President Biden has signed dozens of executive orders on a range of issues but multiple specifically aimed at the pandemic. Which of those are likely to have the most immediate effect?

AUBREY: You know, I think an executive order that could be felt very quickly is one signed Friday to boost food assistance to the millions of people who can't afford healthy groceries right now and, as President Biden said, are hanging by a thread. I spoke to Dr. Richard Besser. He's president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an NPR funder, about this. He's also a former CDC official.

RICHARD BESSER: In the long run, vaccination's what's going to get us out of this pandemic. But in the short run - and that means this winter - these executive orders are a start in the right direction to putting food in children's bellies, to addressing the needs of those who are being hit the hardest.

AUBREY: You know, we're in a race against this virus, Rachel, and people have these immediate needs, too., given the number of people who are out of work or underemployed amid the pandemic.

MARTIN: So all these challenges we're talking about - I mean, it's just a stark reminder that even with the availability of the vaccines, it's still going to take us a long time to put this pandemic behind us.

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, though new infections are declining, it's important to stay vigilant, as we all have heard so many times. The more contagious U.K. variant has been found in more than 20 states now, including Michigan, where over the weekend, the University of Michigan athletic department announced an immediate pause in all athletic activities. And remember, Rachel, only about 5 or 6% of Americans have been vaccinated so far. And Dr. Anthony Fauci says he's looking towards the fall.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: If we get the majority of Americans - 70 to 85% - vaccinated by then, we could have a degree of herd immunity that would get us back to normal.

AUBREY: So it's really crucial for people to stay vigilant for the foreseeable future.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, Allison, I want to ask you - the Biden administration is set to impose a travel ban on folks coming from South Africa. This is about a concern about a new variant there. What can you tell us?

AUBREY: That's right. Biden will impose a ban on most non-U.S. citizens entering the country who have recently been in South Africa. This is starting Saturday, according to Reuters reporting. And this is concern over these contagious variants.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Allison Aubrey, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.