Officials warn that vaccination slowdown looms as demand drops

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent
·4-min read

WASHINGTON — Top public health officials in the Biden administration acknowledged on Friday that the pace of coronavirus vaccinations is slowing. They said they were preparing for a new phase in the nationwide inoculation effort, one that seeks to address “unsettling gaps,” as Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, put it during a Friday briefing of the White House pandemic response team.

One graphic Walensky shared during the briefing showed such gaps in parts of the Deep South, the Midwest and the intermountain West, in particular when it came to vaccination of people 65 and older. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, tends to affect the elderly most severely, and the average age for a COVID-19 fatality is 72.8.

“Because this virus is an opportunist, we anticipate that the areas of lightest vaccine coverage now might be where the virus strikes next,” Walensky said.

Public health officials are clearly concerned about the nation hitting what some call a vaccine wall, with once scarce vaccine doses going unused because demand has dropped.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Capitol Hill in Washington in March. (Susan Walsh/ Pool via AP)
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. (Susan Walsh/Pool via AP)

“We’ve gotten vaccinations to the most at risk and those most eager to get vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said Jeff Zients, who heads the White House pandemic response team, at Friday’s briefing. “And we will continue those efforts, but we know that reaching other populations will take time and focus.”

The Biden administration has launched advertising campaigns aimed at white evangelicals, African Americans and other populations that it believes have not yet fully accepted the coronavirus vaccine. Overall, vaccine hesitancy has dropped significantly since December, but it remains a persistent problem.

Public health officials are especially eager to head off vaccine apathy, as opposed to outright skepticism and refusal. A version of such apathy was expressed Thursday by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a loyal Trump supporter.

Speaking on a radio program, Johnson mused that the “science tells us the vaccines are 95 percent effective, so if you have a vaccine, quite honestly, what do you care if your neighbor has one or not? What is it to you? You’ve got a vaccine, and science is telling you it’s very, very effective. So why is this big push to make sure everybody gets a vaccine?”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., speaks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in March. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

The biomedical establishment went into overdrive to create and manufacture the coronavirus vaccine and then to make it widely available to the public. Now, however, enthusiasm for the vaccine appears to have given way to ambivalence, an unwelcome development the Biden administration is desperate to head off.

Demand started to sag earlier this month. Dr. Philip Keiser, the chief doctor for Galveston County, Texas, recently said that efforts were approaching “a point of saturation of people who really want the vaccine. Now we’re moving on to the reluctant, uninformed and hesitant, as well as the people who are just like, ‘Hell no, I don’t want it.’”

Reports of blood clotting caused by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may have revived safety concerns, even if few serious clotting cases have been confirmed. Most of the vaccine doses administered in the United States come from Pfizer and Moderna and are not associated with any serious side effects.

A slowdown has been observed since earlier this month, from a seven-day average of 3.38 million, reached on April 13, to Friday’s rolling average of 2.95 million. About 89 million people are fully vaccinated in the United States, according to the CDC, but that constitutes only about 27 percent of the population, far below what is needed to stop community spread of the virus.

Nurse Maureen Giffen fills a syringe with a COVID-19 vaccination on the island of Islesford, Maine, Friday, March 19, 2021. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
Nurse Maureen Giffen fills a syringe with a COVID-19 vaccine in Islesford, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

“Going forward, we expect daily vaccination rates will moderate and fluctuate,” Zients said on Friday.

The U.S. still has one of the most aggressive vaccination campaigns in the world; earlier this week, President Biden marked the 200 millionth dose administered since he took office.

Public health officials need the vaccination effort to continue apace if they hope to end the pandemic. They are especially eager to do so before the fall, when colder weather will drive people back indoors, where the virus spreads much more easily than it does outdoors. But that will require vaccinations to continue at a brisk pace for much of the summer, and for the Biden administration’s more targeted new approach to show results with more difficult-to-reach segments of the population.

“I think that there’s probably 150 million Americans who are eager to get vaccinated,” former Food and Drug Administration head Scott Gottlieb recently told NPR. “Beyond that, I think it’s going to be difficult. I’m not sure that you have the demand there.”

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