“It’s the Mike Tyson quote: ‘Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth,’” said one person with knowledge of the vaccine effort who’s not authorized to discuss the work. “They are planning. They are competent. It’s just the weight of everything when you sit down in that chair. It’s heavy.”
Biden officials leading the coronavirus response launched a series of regular briefings this week to keep the public informed on the state of the pandemic and government efforts to contain it and rush vaccines out to as many Americans as possible.
But the briefings were short on details. And behind the scenes, officials say, the team was still struggling to get a handle on basic information, liaise with the career government workers who have been running the response and build out a long-term strategy for bringing — and then keeping — the virus under control.
“One of the virtues of a well-run transition is that by the time you take the reins, you have developed some rapport and trust with the career people you’re working with,” the person familiar with the administration’s work said. The “courtship has been unnaturally short,” the person added.
“Nobody had a complete picture,” said Julie Morita, a member of the Biden transition team and executive vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The plans that were being made were being made with the assumption that more information would be available and be revealed once they got into the White House.”
It’s a steep challenge that Biden officials said they’d been anticipating for weeks, amid a rocky transition period that left them scrambling to piece together vaccine distribution plans and coordinate with state health officials.
Yet in the days since taking over, the Covid response team has confronted a situation that officials described as far worse than expected — and that has prompted public assessments so dour they surprised some who had worked on the administration’s former transition team.
On Tuesday, Biden warned that the “vaccine program is in worse shape than we anticipated or expected,” echoing complaints from his chief of staff, Ron Klain, that a “plan didn’t really exist.”
Biden’s Covid response team has since made a concerted effort not to heap blame on the Trump administration, one official said — even as their vague allusions to a worse-than-expected situation have prompted speculation about what specific problems they’ve encountered.
But people with knowledge of the response detailed fresh concerns that are centered largely on the federal government’s vaccine supply. Biden’s team is still trying to get a firm grasp on the whereabouts of more than 20 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine that the federal government bought and distributed to states but has yet to record as being administered to patients.
Only a small percentage of those unaccounted for doses — roughly 2 million, two officials said — is due to lags in data reporting, the Biden team believes. That would mean the rest of the crucial supply is boxed away in warehouses, sitting idle in freezers or floating elsewhere in the complex distribution pipeline that runs from the administration to individual states.
That’s a dilemma that predated the Biden team’s arrival, with Biden himself hammering the vaccine rollout’s first weeks under the Trump administration as a “dismal failure.”
Yet the response team underestimated at the outset how difficult it would be to fix.
The Biden transition had only received high-level briefings on the distribution effort in the runup to the inauguration on Jan. 20, a transition official said, and was largely kept out of detailed discussions about the on-the-ground operation. The team didn’t get granular access to Tiberius — the central government system used for tracking vaccine distribution — until the transition’s final days.
It was not until after Biden was sworn in that the Covid response team discovered the system was blinded to much of the route that vaccines traveled from the government’s distribution hubs to people’s arms.
Instead, once the vaccine shipments are delivered to the states, responsibility for tracking them has been left up to states’ individual public health systems. The administration then only gets an update once the doses are actually administered and an official record is submitted.
“I think they were really caught off guard by that,” said one adviser. “It’s a mess.”
Top Biden officials have stressed that the missing doses are spread out across the states, which remain largely responsible for getting them to the health providers charged with vaccinating the tens of millions of people waiting in line for shots.
But the Covid team has since had to spend hours on the phone with various state officials trying to manually track down the unused doses, a time-consuming task that’s sapped resources and has yet to give officials a full picture of…