Operation Warp Speed chief says Covid vaccine distribution ‘should be better’ as U.S. misses goal

The United States will not inoculate as many people against the coronavirus by the end of the year as federal officials originally estimated, President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 vaccine czar said on Wednesday.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest count, more than 11.4 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna‘s two-dose vaccines have been distributed across the country as of Monday morning, but just 2.1 million or so shots have been given to people. That’s far short of U.S. health officials’ original goal of injecting at least 20 million Americans with their first shots before the end of the year.

“We agree that that number is lower than what we had hoped for,” Moncef Slaoui, chief advisor of Operation Warp Speed, said during a press briefing. “We know that it should be better, and we’re working hard to make it better,” he said.

The CDC has acknowledged that its own data is out of date due to delays in receiving it from the states and jurisdictions that report it to federal officials. “A large difference between the number of doses distributed and the number of doses administered is expected at this point in the COVID vaccination program due to several factors,” the agency said.

U.S. Army Gen. Gustave Perna, who oversees logistics for Operation Warp Speed, said he was working to resolve the delay in data reporting, which currently lags by 72 to 96 hours. The CDC updates its vaccine counts every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 a.m. ET, according to the agency.

Nonetheless, the U.S. is “really doing well” with distribution so far, Perna said, adding that the true number of distributed doses is now more than 14 million. The operation began shipping second doses of Pfizer’s vaccine this week for the people who were inoculated with a first dose in mid-December.

The CDC also says on its website that the federal government also hasn’t yet launched its vaccine distribution partnership with major pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens, which have been tasked with vaccinating long-term care residents, the CDC added.

A spokesperson for CVS Health told CNBC on Wednesday, however, that the pharmacy chain has already started administering the vaccines at long-term care facilities in 48 states and Washington, D.C. at the beginning of this week. A spokesperson for Walgreens did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Despite the delays, Operation Warp Speed spokesman Michael Pratt said the U.S. is close to meeting its goal of injecting 20 million Americans with their first shot by the end of the year.

“Operation Warp Speed remains on track to have approximately 40 million doses of vaccine and allocate 20 million doses for first vaccinations by the end of December 2020, with distribution of the 20 million first doses spanning into the first week of January as states place orders for them,” he said in a statement.

Perna also applauded state health officials for their work rolling out the doses so far, contradicting President Trump who took to Twitter earlier in the day to blame the states for the slower-than-expected rollout, saying the U.S. has distributed the lifesaving shots but states have to administer them.

“The Federal Government has distributed the vaccines to the states,” the president said in a tweet. “Now it is up to the states to administer. Get moving!”

The irregular holiday schedule likely explains some of the delays in immunization reporting, Claire Hannan, the executive director of Association of Immunization Managers, or AIM, which represents state health officials leading the vaccination planning, said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Shipments of vaccine arrive in the first half of the week, but many places decided not to hold vaccination clinics over the Christmas holiday late last week. The biggest problem, however, is that many states have to set aside up to half of their doses for the federal government’s partnership to inoculate long-term care residents through pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens, Hannan said.

“Those count as doses distributed, but they’re basically just sitting in the long-term care facility bank,” Hannan said. She added that hospitals are being more deliberate with their vaccination programs by staggering appointments and taking their time to ensure they’re storing and mixing the doses correctly.

“They’re doing all these things the right way, and I think  it’s not something we want to rush,” Hannan said. “Obviously we need to ramp things up as we move beyond health care workers, but I think there’s just a number of contributing factors into that, none of which signal a big problem to me.”

— CNBC’s Will Feuer and Melissa Repko contributed to this report.

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