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U.S. Continues To Accelerate Vaccination Strategy

NOEL KING, HOST:

State and local officials are deciding how to respond to some good news on the coronavirus. If you look at a chart of the number of COVID cases diagnosed every day in this country, you see a line that started rising sharply in November of last year. Now, that line peaked early this year. On one day in January, there were more than 300,000 cases in this country. And then the line starts to fall sharply. Meanwhile, the pace of vaccinations has bounced up.

NPR's Allison Aubrey has been following this one. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So because new cases are falling, some states have started loosening restrictions on things like indoor dining. Is there concern that we're getting ahead of ourselves here?

AUBREY: Well, a number of states have changed or lifted their statewide mask mandates - Montana, Iowa, North Dakota and Mississippi. And though cases are dropping, as you just pointed out, there is ongoing concern about the more contagious variants. The U.K. strain is spreading here in the U.S. Over the weekend, scientists pointed to multiple new variants identified in the U.S. They also may be more contagious. So CDC Director Rochelle Walensky says it is just too early to lift mask mandates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We are still at around 1,500 to 3,500 deaths per day. And if we want to get our children back to school - and I believe we all do - it all depends on how much community spread is out there. We need to all take responsibility to decrease that community spread, including mask-wearing, so that we can get our kids and our society back.

AUBREY: So even if you don't have children waiting to get back into the classroom, your behavior can still influence how safe it is for schools to reopen.

KING: Let's talk about vaccinations. Nearly 38 million people have been vaccinated in this country so far. And yet a lot of people, myself included, are still trying to figure out how and where they can get their first shot...

AUBREY: Yes.

KING: ...And when, right?

AUBREY: Yes, absolutely. Well, I mean, vaccine-makers are under contract to produce millions of more doses, but not overnight. I mean, there are continued bottlenecks. Vaccination sites receive weekly allocations. They are using them up in some instances before the week is over. I spoke to Dr. Marc Boom - he's the CEO of Houston Methodist - about the overall situation.

MARC BOOM: The demand far outstrips supply right now. Supply has been creeping up, and that's good, and some different channels for supply which are helping matters. But we're still seeing far, far, far more people who desire vaccine than we can possibly give it to at the present time.

AUBREY: Now, Moderna may be able to stretch the supply by putting more vaccine into every vial. Boom says it would be a big help if another vaccine is authorized soon. There's hope for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

KING: OK. So you have some vaccination sites that are closing midway through the week or toward the end of the week because they have run out of the amount of doses that they've been allocated. But at the same time, a lot of people are supposed to be getting their second shot. They've got to get that in on time. How is that working?

AUBREY: You know, mostly, it's working out all right because the system is designed for matched doses, meaning that when the federal government makes the allocations and states get them, they're supposed to ship the first dose and doses earmarked for second doses. Now, there are scattered reports of snags. And some states are moving to more centralized delivery. In Princeton, N.J., for instance, last week, there was a temporary closure of municipal clinics due to a shortage of doses. And when this was announced, some people who'd gotten their first shots were confused. They're like, OK, where do I get my second shot? I spoke to the mayor there, Mark Freda, about it.

MARK FREDA: The municipal clinics were able to get set up before the county clinics were. Now that the county clinics are set up, the state would prefer the doses to go to the county clinics to get more doses out. So people are very frustrated, and I can't blame them.

AUBREY: You know, he says they've sorted the situation out, explained to folks how and when to get their second shots. But overall, no matter where you are in the country, it just hasn't helped that there are multiple sites to register for shots. It's just another layer of complication. We've all heard the stories of people who need help navigating the process. And it's a reminder of how fragmented the delivery system is.

KING: I want to ask you one follow-up on the second doses 'cause we heard how it worked out in Princeton, N.J. But this is happening all across the country. So in theory, there are doses set aside for people to get their second dose, it sounds like you're saying.

AUBREY: Yeah.

KING: So even if the site runs short, if you are meant to get your second dose, you should get it?

AUBREY: Yeah. Now, you should make your appointment for your second dose before you leave the appointment getting that first shot.

KING: OK.

AUBREY: And a lot of places will help you do that. When you're sitting in the waiting room, they'll say, OK, now it's time to schedule that second shot. They'll also give you a vaccine card with the details of the vaccine you got. You need to hang onto that. You may be asked to present it at the time of your second shot. Take a photo of it on your phone so that you don't lose it. Bottom line on the availability of the second doses, which is, I think, what you're getting at here - you know, there are these reports of snafus. But Marc Boom, the CEO of Houston Methodist, explains that the system is set up so that the second doses are earmarked as second doses.

BOOM: So far, that has worked extremely well. So every Monday, we receive our first-dose allocations. And every Wednesday, we get a truck come in with our second doses. We order those. There's a lead time to that. But they've been coming in as we've order them. And so again, that hasn't been a problem.

AUBREY: As long as states distribute what's been allocated and continue to receive the number of doses they've been promised by the federal government...

KING: As time has gone on - I know you've been tracking this - have you found there are still a lot of people who are hesitant to get vaccinated?

AUBREY: You know, rates of hesitancy appear to be dropping. A new CDC analysis of high-priority groups finds hesitancy has dropped among essential workers, also among Black adults. In nursing homes, more than half of workers in some facilities opted out of vaccination early on. But this appears to be changing. I spoke to Jackie Barbarito (ph). She's pregnant. She works at a long-term care facility in Virginia. After talking to her doctor, she realized it was the right choice for her. And this has influenced some of her co-workers.

JACKIE BARBARITO: When they saw me standing in line for the first shot with my, like, big belly, smiling for a photo, I think it encouraged them to just hop in line and submit their consent forms. And that's all they needed was validation.

AUBREY: And this is often the way it goes. When people see those they know and trust get the vaccine, they're more likely to follow.

KING: Sure. That makes sense.

NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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