Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently expressed a sense of “impending doom” regarding the pandemic. Her fear is that, unless Americans keep abiding by strict Covid-19 protocols like mask-wearing, social distancing, and forgoing travel, a new surge in cases and deaths could be on the horizon.
“I so badly want to be done,” Walensky said. “So I’m asking you to just hold on a little longer.”
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said, “We’ve prematurely pulled back from some mitigation like masks. We’re near a vaccine inflection point, but not quite there yet. We need another 2-3 weeks.”
“Better days are ahead,” Gottlieb said.
If only government officials had operated with the same swiftness as they’re pleading for from the public.
There are numerous policy levers that could have been pulled weeks ago that would have made it easier to track, contain, and prevent the spread of infections. Instead, government officials have taken a more cautious, plodding approach.
The only reliable path to victory against Covid-19 is through rapid, widespread vaccination. And while the U.S. vaccine effort might seem impressive compared to most other countries, it still shows a troubling lack of urgency.
Consider first that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to authorize the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for use in the United States — even though governments in the United Kingdom, Mexico, Canada, and the European Union green-lit it months ago.
In phase III clinical trials in Britain, the vaccine proved 100 percent effective at preventing death and hospitalization from Covid-19. It’s not only cheaper to produce than either Moderna or Pfizer’s vaccine; it’s considerably easier to store and transport, as it doesn’t need to be kept at super-low temperatures. In mid-March, there were 30 million doses of the vaccine sitting in storage in an Ohio warehouse.
Some countries have paused administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine over concern about blood clots in people who received the shot. But the European Medicines Agency said this week, “The reported combination of blood clots and low blood platelets is very rare, and the overall benefits of the vaccine in preventing COVID-19 outweigh the risks of side effects.”
Meanwhile, cases are climbing in Europe, and countries like France and Italy are re-imposing lockdowns. As George Mason University Professor Alex Tabbarok argued in mid-March, “More people will die from the halt than could possibl[y] have been saved by the halt” of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Back stateside, distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine has been inexplicably sluggish. The shot earned FDA emergency-use authorization in February. As of late March, only about half the 4.3 million available doses had found their way into patient’s arms.
Vaccines are just part of the story, however. Access to Covid-19 tests — a critical tool in preventing the spread of the virus — has also been delayed by a leisurely FDA approval process. It was just last week that the agency approved the first at-home Covid-19 tests that can be used multiple times throughout the day.
Making cheap at-home tests as available as possible should have been an urgent priority since the beginning of the pandemic. So why is it only now that the FDA has gotten around to approving these products?
For its part, the CDC has provided far too weak an incentive for Americans to get vaccinated. Vaccines are supposed to be a ticket back to normalcy. But the agency continues to insist that fully vaccinated people wear masks and engage in distancing when in public, and that they avoid medium or large gatherings.
If that’s the reward for getting a shot, it’s no wonder that more than one-third of Americans were taking a wait-and-see approach — or did not have plans to get vaccinated at all.
As of April 7, some 32.6 percent of Americans have received their first vaccination and 19 percent have been fully vaccinated. Some three dozen states have opened up eligibility for vaccines to everyone over the age of 16.
Americans have had their lives disrupted for more than a year. Many have sacrificed their jobs, businesses, social lives, and financial security in the service of containing the pandemic.
If the government truly believes that “impending doom” is upon us, it has to work faster to get shots in arms in order to reach “herd immunity.”
Sally C. Pipes is President, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.