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It's A New Year, But The Coronavirus Pandemic Rages On

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this first Monday of 2021, we have news of vaccine distribution. It is not proceeding nearly as quickly as officials once expected. And of course, this is a matter of life and death. NPR's Allison Aubrey has been covering the pandemic throughout and joins us now.

Good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: It seems that while millions of people have received the vaccine in a matter of weeks - I mean, this is a big deal. A lot of people are getting the vaccine. Nevertheless, far fewer than expected have received it. What's happening?

AUBREY: That's right. Well, the U.S. has shipped 17 million doses so far, but the vast majority of these doses have not yet been used. They have not made it to people's arms. Officials at Operation Warp Speed have acknowledged the slow start, saying it should be better. Here's U.S. Army General Gus Perna, who was really put on the defensive, Steve, as he tried to explain the slow start.

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GUSTAVE PERNA: There's two holidays. There's been three major snowstorms. There is everybody working through, you know, how to do the notification, how to ensure that it stays in accordance with the cold chain. There's numerous factors.

AUBREY: You know, Perna expressed his optimism that the pace will accelerate in the coming days.

INSKEEP: That all sounds pretty reasonable. But do public health experts trust what Operation Warp Speed is telling them?

AUBREY: Well, to some extent - but it's complicated because there are about 70,000 providers involved in the vaccinations from doctors' offices, retail pharmacies, hospitals. And the plan to get the shot into the arms of millions of people relies on the existing health care delivery system, which is very fragmented. So Jason Schwartz of Yale University says this week will really determine whether the rollout is struggling as much as these initial figures suggest.

JASON SCHWARTZ: The case will clearly accelerate going forward. The question is, will it accelerate quickly enough to keep up with the five, 10 million doses of vaccines that will be coming online every week or whether or not there's really a need to make mass vaccination clinics, purpose-built programs, facilities, distribution sites...

AUBREY: To really help vaccinate more people quickly - he says the answer is probably both, Steve. For instance, in New Jersey, there is a plan for vaccination mega-sites across the state in an effort to inoculate as many people as quickly as possible. But will all states be able to ramp up the process quickly? Schwartz says what's happened with coronavirus testing should really serve as a cautionary tale. If the distribution and delivery is too fragmented, if there's no coordinated approach or a systematic way to get it into everyone's arms, this could take a long time.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to figure this out. So the supply is there for the moment. The distribution isn't working. But people are also talking about how to spread the supply once the distribution gets going to give people smaller doses. How would that work?

AUBREY: You know, over the weekend, Dr. Moncef Slaoui - he's a top Operation Warp Speed official - suggested that one strategy that could work to double the number of people who could get the Moderna vaccine is to cut the dose in half. Speaking on CBS, he pointed to data that indicated people in a clinical trial who got a smaller half dose ended up with the same immune response as those who received the full dose.

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MONCEF SLAOUI: We know that for the Moderna vaccine, giving half the dose to people between the ages of 18 and 55, we know it induces identical immune response. And therefore, we are in discussion with Moderna...

AUBREY: And in discussion with the Food and Drug Administration - now, Steve, this would be an FDA decision. It is unclear what will come of this idea. Remember, at the moment, the big challenge is that there are millions of doses out there that haven't been given yet.

INSKEEP: Let's remember, this is a race against the virus. How's the virus been doing lately?

AUBREY: Well, you know, there's a big concern about a post-holiday surge. The TSA screened about a million passengers a day at airport checkpoints on some days amid the holiday, so there have been a lot of people traveling. And Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke about the situation yesterday at NBC. He says it's unfortunate, yet it's predictable.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: My concern is that it could get worse over the next couple of weeks as we see the lag that happens when an event occurs, like the Christmas and New Year's holiday. You usually have a couple of week lag before you see an additional uptick of cases, which is always followed by hospitalizations and deaths.

AUBREY: Now, right now, Steve, we're averaging about 200,000 new cases every day. So it's very important for people to stay vigilant, even though we've been hearing this for months and months and months now, especially given that a more contagious version or variant of the virus may be circulating now.

INSKEEP: Well, how quickly is that variant spreading in the United States as far as we can tell?

AUBREY: You know, it's not exactly clear. But last week, Florida became the third state to find this more contagious version of the virus. Florida health authorities say it was found in a young man with no recent travel history to the U.K. This strain has also been identified in Colorado, California. And the experts I've spoken to say, look, at this point, it just wouldn't be a surprise to find it throughout the country.

Here's Angela Rasmussen. She's a virologist at Georgetown University.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: While it's good news that it doesn't appear to be more virulent or cause more severe disease, the fact that it's more contagious and transmissible is actually very, very bad. If there are more cases of coronavirus than we would have had anyways - and we already have too many - that's going to increase the number of people who get very sick from the coronavirus and people who need to go to the hospital.

AUBREY: And you know, Steve, at a time when the health care system in the U.S. is stretched really thin - many hospitals are at or near capacity - this is scary to think about.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks for the update, as always.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey has been joining us Monday after Monday after Monday throughout this pandemic to give us the latest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.