Federal Distribution Foul-Up Quickly Mars COVID-19 Vaccine Program
With the COVID-19 vaccination program barely underway, confusion has already marred the process that the federal government is using to allocate and distribute the vaccine to certain states – including Oregon.
Officials with Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s vaccine allocation program, acknowledged last week that they had unexpectedly cut the promised amounts of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine going to a number of states, including Oregon. The New York Times said the amounts were cut to at least 14 states, and social medial pundits noted that 12 of those 14 were so-called blue or Democratic states in the November presidential election.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden on Sunday tweeted that he and Sen. Jeff Merkley “today received assurances from federal officials that Oregon will receive our proportionate vaccine allotment. I will watchdog this commitment to ensure Oregon is treated equitably in the ongoing distribution of vaccines.” Wyden and Merkley are both Democrats.
In announcing the cuts on Friday, the head of Operation Warp Speed, Gen. Gustave Perna, did not make it clear exactly why his agency had cut the amounts, how much they were cut by, which states were cut, how the agency chose those states and whether the agency would make up the cuts at a later point. Perna said his agency earlier in the month miscalculated how much vaccine would be available and that he had approved distribution of the incorrect allocation estimates.
Oregon officials said they had been expecting Operation Warp Speed to provide the state with 40,950 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the week starting Dec. 21, but instead the federal agency cut the week’s shipment to 25,350, a drop of 15,600 doses. In California, state officials said an expected allocation for that week of 327,000 Pfizer doses was cut by to 233,000. The state of Washington said its allocation for that week was cut to 44,850 doses from a promised 74,100.
The federal government has said it is distributing vaccines based on the total population of each state. Officials with Operation Warp Speed have repeatedly said they expect to distribute 20 million doses of vaccines – either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine - this month. Oregon’s share of the federal allotment, with 1.3% of the nation’s population, would be about 260,000 doses.
But Operation Warp Speed has promised or delivered only 213,000 to the state this month, according to data from the operation and the Oregon Health Authority, which is overseeing vaccine distribution in the state. The vaccine is distributed on a weekly basis.
The Moderna vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration on Friday and distribution was scheduled to start Monday.
According to Operation Warp Speed’s website and the Oregon Health Authority, Oregon was allocated 35,100 Pfizer-BioNTech doses for the week starting Dec. 14; 97,450 Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna doses for week starting Dec. 21; and 80,450 Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna doses for the week starting Dec. 28, for a total of 213,000 doses.
There is no indication that more doses are expected for December. So far, for early and mid-January, Operation Warp Speed’s website says the agency has allocated 132,550 doses of either vaccine to Oregon.
The state has about 4.2 million residents. State officials hope to vaccinate about 3 million of them in order to reach so-called community immunity, a point at which the virus will begin to die out due to lack of human hosts. That would take about 6 million doses of the vaccine to accomplish.
Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and others expect to produce hundreds of millions of doses for U.S. residents next year, but exactly when those will be available remains unclear.
Still, state officials expect the spigot for vaccine doses to open up in the next few months.
Perna apologized to state officials who have based their vaccination strategies on the number vaccine doses they expect to receive from Operation Warp Speed.
“It was my fault,” he said. “It was a planning error, and I am responsible.”
You can reach Christian Wihtol at [email protected].