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States Struggle To Administer Their Doses Of COVID-19 Vaccines

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How can public health officials speed the delivery of vaccines? Many states report it is hard to administer the vaccines as quickly as the doses arrive. This is an enormous task. And so we're going to talk this morning with Martha Bebinger of WBUR in Boston, Blake Farmer at WPLN in Nashville and Will Stone in Seattle. We'll catch up on what's happening in three different states, three different regions of the country. Good morning to you all.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Good morning.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Martha, let's start with you. How frustrated are officials in the Northeast?

BEBINGER: Well, here's an example, Steve. Yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says he's going to start fining hospitals that don't get vaccines into people's arms fast enough. But many states in the Northeast are falling behind with injections as supply picks up. Massachusetts, for example, has injected 40% of vaccines it has received to date. And one reason, Steve, is that it just takes longer to get these shots than it does with other vaccines.

INSKEEP: Why would this be harder to do than other vaccines?

BEBINGER: Well, let's take the flu shot, for example. You could be in and out there in less than five minutes. But with coronavirus vaccines, you might spend that five minutes just answering intake questions. And then, you may have some questions yourself about the shots. Once you are injected, then you're monitored for 15 minutes and - before you leave just in case you have a reaction. Dr. Asif Merchant (ph), a nursing home medical director near Boston, said the whole experience took him about 30 minutes when he got vaccinated on Saturday. And Merchant says there just aren't enough vaccinators trained and mobilized for even this early stage of this mammoth project.

ASIF MERCHANT: That's caused much more of a delay than I would have anticipated. I think, when it comes to general public, that is going to be an even bigger problem. We really need all hands on deck here.

BEBINGER: Steve, we had one example this weekend of what happens when delivery is too slow. One vaccinator had thawed more of the Pfizer vaccine than they could use. So they dropped off several hundred doses to a Boston hospital system just to try to avoid wasting it.

INSKEEP: Well, this whole idea of dropping off doses elsewhere seems to be happening a lot. I hear anecdotally, you guys have been reporting about people who aren't in the first priority groups who end up getting vaccine just because it seems to be lying around. Why is that happening?

FARMER: Yeah. This is Blake Farmer. And here in Tennessee, we've even had some local health departments who've set up some lists of folks who are willing to be on site within 30 minutes to take any of those leftover doses.

STONE: And this is Will in Seattle. And just to pick up on Blake's point, usually, this is only a handful of doses. It's basically the leftovers. And here in Washington, hospitals say they put together a reserve list of people who are at high risk either because of age or some other health condition. And the No. 1 priority if you ever have any extra doses is never to waste any vaccine.

INSKEEP: Well, how is the rollout going in the western states where you are, Will?

STONE: Well, on the West Coast, Oregon, California, Washington, they're all vaccinating at about the same pace. They've used anywhere from 24 to 25% of the doses so far. There are some states that are moving especially quickly - New Mexico and Colorado, it's above 40%. And some of the most rural, hard-hit places - states like Montana, North and South Dakota - those are actually at the front of the pack nationwide. And then, on the other end, you have some states where it's been slower, like Arizona, and are now just picking up. But even within a state, the story can be very different based on where you are.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

STONE: Well, some of the big hospitals in Washington are very much in the middle of working through their lists. In this first phase, it's upwards of half a million people in the 1a. One major hospital system I heard from said they have both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. And the process for each is different. So that complicates the logistics. But then you have other places that are way ahead. And Cindy Chase is head of nursing at Ferry County Memorial Hospital, which is in rural eastern Washington.

CINDY CHASE: We're just kind of waiting for the go-ahead to get moving on the other phases because the town here, they know everything. And they want to know, why aren't you using your vaccines? We know you have them.

INSKEEP: So some of this is going to almost random people. Of course, no vaccine truly goes to waste. But you've got certain people with priority. What's happening with long-term care facilities where so many people have died?

STONE: Yeah. These places are absolutely desperate to start giving shots. A record number of people are dying right now in long-term care. States have started vaccinating nursing home residents. But some say it's not fast enough. And the facilities that I've spoken with say they're basically at the mercy of when CVS or Walgreens schedules them. But some states are being very aggressive. West Virginia planned to get the first shot to all long-term care facilities by the end of last week.

INSKEEP: Well, that moves us back to Appalachia. So let's go back to Blake Farmer in Nashville. Are all the people who are eligible for vaccines in your region actually taking them?

FARMER: Well, not everybody. You know, even among health care workers, there is lots of vaccine hesitancy, as it's known, especially in rural areas, I'm told. Some have great reason. Perhaps they're pregnant or planning to be. Others are thinking, you know, I've already had COVID. So I'll just hope that provides enough immunity. Individual hospitals are working to convince more front line workers to get vaccinated. But Tennessee's public health officials are more like, you know, you snooze, you lose.

Tennessee, along with Texas and Florida, have opened up vaccinations to seniors. And that's all seniors, whether they live in a nursing home or not. And this is creating a bit of confusion in some cases. You've got counties using SignUpGenius and SurveyMonkey to coordinate appointments. One county's just doing a big first come, first served drive-through event this week.

INSKEEP: Wow.

FARMER: You know, and really, it depends on where someone lives. Here in Nashville, for instance, there's still more health workers and first responders waiting for their doses. But smaller communities, like Will said, have been able to move on to the masses a bit more quickly.

INSKEEP: Will, how does this get even more complicated as people begin showing up for their second dose?

STONE: It is supposed to be a relatively smooth process where the second dose comes automatically. But already, some hospitals here in Washington say there are delays. And they are not quite sure when that second batch of doses will arrive. And any hiccups, you can imagine, like that do make it harder to focus on getting the vaccine to new people.

INSKEEP: Let's circle back now to the Northeast, Martha Bebinger, because the big question is, as we get a few more weeks into this - I mean, this is a huge process. Are people administering the vaccines likely to catch up with supply, get it out a little quicker?

BEBINGER: Well, Steve, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday that he thinks the pace of vaccinations will pick up quickly. Other experts say the timeframe for getting vaccines out is just too optimistic. There is about $8 billion for vaccine distribution in the latest COVID relief package. But this is one of the biggest COVID challenges facing President-elect Joe Biden.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much for the update from across the country. WBUR's Martha Bebinger in Boston, WPLN's Blake Farmer in Nashville and reporter Will Stone in Seattle. Thanks to you all once again.

BEBINGER: Thank you.

STONE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMMA BEATZ'S "EASY MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.