Sun | Jan 16, 2022

How a rapid COVID-19 vaccine rollout backfired in some US states

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2021 | 3:26 PM
In this March 9, 2021 photo, Army health specialists fill syringes with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Miami. Despite the clamour to speed up the U.S. vaccination drive against COVID-19, the first three months of the rollout suggest faster is not necessarily better - AP photo

An analysis has found that states such as South Carolina, Florida and Missouri that raced ahead of others to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to large groups of people have vaccinated smaller shares of their population than those that moved more slowly and methodically, such as Hawaii and Connecticut.

The explanation, as experts see it, is that the rapid expansion of eligibility caused a surge in demand too big for some states to handle and led to serious disarray.

Vaccine supplies proved insufficient or unpredictable, websites crashed and phone lines became jammed, spreading confusion, frustration and resignation among many people.

“The infrastructure just wasn’t ready. It kind of backfired,” said Dr Rebecca Wurtz, an infectious disease physician and health data specialist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

She added: “In the rush to satisfy everyone, governors satisfied few and frustrated many.”

The findings could contain an important go-slow lesson for the nation’s governors, many of whom have announced dramatic expansions in their rollouts over the past few days after being challenged by President Joe Biden to make all adults eligible for vaccination by May 1.

“If you’re more targeted and more focused, you can do a better job,” said Sema Sgaier, executive director of Surgo Ventures, a nonprofit health-data organisation that conducted the analysis in collaboration with The Associated Press.

“You can open it up — if you have set up the infrastructure to vaccinate all those people fast.”

Numerous factors stymied state vaccination performance.

Conspiracy theories, poor communication and undependable shipments slowed efforts after the first vials of precious vaccine arrived December 14.

But the size of the eligible population was always within the control of state officials, who made widely varying decisions about how many people they invited to get in line when there wasn’t enough vaccine to go around.

When the drive began, most states put health care workers and nursing home residents at the front of the line.

In doing so, states were abiding by national recommendations from experts who also suggested doing everything possible to reach everyone in those two groups before moving on to the next categories.

But faced with political pressure and a clamour from the public, governors rushed ahead.

Both the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden team urged opening vaccinations to older Americans.

By late January, more than half the states had opened up to older adults — some 75 and above, others 65 and up.

That’s when the real problems started.

South Carolina expanded eligibility to people in Steven Kite’s age group on January 13.

Kite, 71, immediately booked a vaccination at a hospital.

But the next day, his appointment was cancelled along with thousands of others because of a shortage of vaccine.

“It was frustrating at first,” Kite said.

After a week of uncertainty, he rescheduled.

He and his wife are now vaccinated.

“It ended up working out fine. I know they’ve had other problems. The delivery of the doses has been very unreliable," he said.

In Missouri, big-city shortages sent vaccine seekers driving hundreds of miles to rural towns.

Dr Elizabeth Bergamini, a paediatrician in suburban St Louis, drove about 30 people to often out-of-the way vaccination events after the state opened eligibility to those 65 and older on January 18 and then expanded further.

“We went from needing to vaccinate several hundred thousand people in the St Louis area to an additional half-million people, but we still had not vaccinated that first group, so it has been this mad dash,” Bergamini said.

“It has just been a whole hot mess.”

“It got a little chaotic,” said Dr Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

“We created far more demand than there was supply. That stressed the system and that may have left the system less efficient.”

Plescia said the analysis suggests that “a more methodical, measured, judicious, priority-based approach — despite people’s perception — actually can be as efficient, or more efficient, than opening things up and making it available to more people.”

In retrospect, health workers and nursing home residents were the easy groups to vaccinate.

Doses could be delivered to them where they lived and worked.

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