Over the past few weeks, administration officials have repeatedly briefed President Donald Trump on data showing that the steep uptick in COVID-19 infections and deaths would likely soon bring one of the darkest chapters of the pandemic to the country.
But Trump, according to three sources with knowledge of the situation, has remained unmoved.
“It has not changed his approach,” said one senior administration official, who works closely with the task force. The official added that Trump has, at times, responded to such warnings with insistence that his administration accomplished a “miracle” with the development of a COVID vaccine—an elixir for the pandemic fight that the president insisted Joe Biden, the man who bested him in the 2020 election, couldn’t have pulled off.
Trump’s nonchalance in the face of horrifying COVID news is hardly new. Nor are his optimistic boasts about a coming vaccine.
And yet, the latest round of downplaying has still sent tremors through the ranks of administration brass and senior public-health officials who not only fear the damage that will likely be done in coming weeks but also sense real, unappreciated hurdles with respect to getting a vaccine to the public.
Despite much heralded breakthroughs in vaccine research, state and local officials across the country say they are still unclear about basic operational elements, such as exactly how many doses they will be receiving from the federal government, who specifically in their communities will receive the vaccine first, and how long immunization supplies will last.
The inability to get answers to those questions has caused confusion and frustration among those set to take over the COVID fight. And in the sharpest rebuke to date, a member of Biden’s own task force team attacked the Trump administration on Monday for failing to ensure states have what they need to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I keep seeing and hearing that Operation Warp Speed is… prepping airplanes and trucks with special freezer units. And we hear they’re gonna drop the vaccine off at a warehouse full of deep freezers somewhere. But I don’t hear much more detail about the plan after that,” said Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and a member of Biden’s coronavirus transition task force. “It’s harder to address that last mile between the loading dock and the patient’s arm. The other part that hasn’t yet happened in this administration is making sure adequate financial resources have been made available to support immunization programs and to administer the vaccine.”
“I keep seeing and hearing that Operation Warp Speed is… prepping airplanes and trucks with special freezer units. And we hear they’re gonna drop the vaccine off at a warehouse full of deep freezers somewhere. But I don’t hear much more detail about the plan after that.”
— Dr. Rick Bright
Bright’s warnings aren’t just the isolated frustrations of a now well-known critic of the current administration. (Bright resigned from the federal government in October after he submitted a whistleblower claim alleging his superiors removed him from his post because he pushed back on political pressure to support the use of hydroxychloroquine).
Officials across the country say that there’s been a lack of clear messaging from the federal government about how it envisions the country prioritizing the initial round of vaccine doses from Pfizer. While states throughout the U.S. have been in constant conversation with officials associated with Operation Warp Speed—the public-private partnership aimed at fast tracking a coronavirus vaccine—there is widespread anxiety about the details of the vaccine distribution.
Every state and territory submitted their interim plans for vaccine distribution in October, many of them drawing on prior disbursement plans as a template for envisioning how a COVID-19 vaccine would reach the public. While most of those plans have been updated after further conversation with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Operation Warp Speed, without more guidance from the federal government on prioritization, plans can only go so far.
Last week, for example, a spokesperson for Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said that the state “expected to receive approximately 185,000 doses on initial shipment,” but didn’t “know for sure.” In Pennsylvania, a spokesperson for the state health department said “there are still a number of details being worked through on the federal level regarding the vaccine distribution.” An executive summary of the department’s October vaccination plan anticipated “an extremely limited number of doses in the beginning of its vaccination program,” as it laid out its vaccination priorities.
While the White House’s coronavirus task force has urged states for months to try and build trust about the vaccine in their communities, local officials and…