Biden administration to send troops to California to help staff Covid vaccine sites

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visits National Guard troops deployed at the U.S. Capitol and its perimeter on January 29, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Manuel Balce Ceneta | Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has approved the deployment of more than 1,000 active-duty troops to help deliver Covid-19 vaccines across the U.S., a member of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response team announced Friday.

Some of the troops will arrive in California within the next 10 days and begin operations by Feb. 15 with additional states to follow, Andy Slavitt, a senior advisor to Biden’s Covid-19 response team, told reporters.

“The military’s critical role in supporting sites will help vaccinate thousands of people per day and ensure that every American who wants a vaccine will receive them,” he said during the White House press briefing.

Biden is trying to pick up the pace of vaccinations in the U.S. after a slower-than-expected rollout under former President Donald Trump’s administration. The U.S. has distributed about 57.4 million vaccine doses, but only about 35.2 million have been administered as of Thursday at 6 a.m. ET, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Pentagon is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to expedite delivery of the shots and is also weighing a request to send up to 10,000 troops to support vaccination efforts across the country. FEMA and the Defense Department will jointly determine when active-duty members are no longer required.

The 1,110 active-duty service members will compose five teams and involve units from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, according to the Department of Defense. The troops will include nurses and medical staff who will help administer Pfizer’s and Moderna’s two-dose vaccines, according to the agency.

Slavitt also said the U.S. is using the Defense Production Act to help Pfizer meet its manufacturing targets for its vaccine. The company said Tuesday that it planned to deliver 200 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine to the U.S. by May, earlier than its initial forecast of July.

“I think the use of the Defense Production Act is one of the things that is allowing Pfizer to meet the targets,” he said. “They announced an acceleration of their targets of when they’ll be able to deliver vaccines. And I think our partnership with them is one of those reasons. I’m not going to say it’s the entire reason, but it’s certainly a critical factor.”

Federal officials are also pushing states to administer shots more quickly. On Monday, Slavitt said some health-care providers were regularly holding back vaccines for second shots, causing vaccine appointments to be canceled and preventing some Americans from receiving their first doses. 

“We want to be clear that we understand why health-care providers have done that, but that it does not need to happen and should not happen,” he told reporters Monday, adding that U.S. officials know Covid vaccine shipments to states were often unpredictable during the early rollout in late December.

“We completely understand that this has been a direct result of the lack of predictability many states and providers have had regarding how many doses that they would receive,” he said. “That’s one reason why last week we announced that the federal government will be providing a continual three-week window in the vaccines that will be shipped.”

U.S. officials are also hoping vaccine supply will increase after Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine is authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration, which could happen as early as this month. The FDA has scheduled a meeting of its Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee on Feb. 26 to discuss the vaccine, and the U.S. could authorize the vaccine the next day.

Slavitt said the U.S. will use every option available to accelerate the manufacture of J&J’s vaccine.

“As is the case with other vaccines, we have not found that the level of manufacturing allows us to have as much vaccine as we think we need coming out of the gate,” he said.

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