In its push to get as many Americans vaccinated as soon as possible, the government is also pushing to get as many people qualified to administer the COVID-19 vaccinations as soon as possible.
When it comes to vaccination against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Biden administration officials say that we’ve come a long way in a short time, but there’s a long and possibly rough ahead. Jeff Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, says that about 1.7 million people in the United States are being vaccinated a day. Zients unveiled the update in the government’s effort to turn back the COVID-19 tide in a briefing at the White House yesterday. He said that President Biden’s promise to have 100 million Americans vaccinated in his first 100 days in office should be achievable by April 29. About 54 million vaccine shots have been administered so far, with 5% of Americans having received both doses.
“There is a path out of this pandemic,” Zients said. “But how quickly we exit this crisis depends on all of us…. Follow the public health guidance. Wear masks, social distance, and get vaccinated when it’s your turn.”
Zients was joined at the press conference by Rochelle Walensky, MD, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, PhD, the head of the Biden administration’s Health Equity Task Force.
In its push to get as many Americans vaccinated as soon as possible, the government is also pushing to get as many people qualified to administer the COVID-19 vaccinations as soon as possible. To that end, Zients said, the government is allowing retired doctors and nurses to administer the vaccine as well as about 700 federal workers. In addition, 1200 National Guard members have been enlisted in the vaccine effort. Zients also said that “we have activated over 1,000 members of the military to support community vaccination sites, and we’ve deployed an additional 1,000 federal personnel to support community vaccination sites in operational roles. We continue to take action to increase the number of vaccinators and federal support teams.”
Community centers, sports stadiums, high school gyms and even churches will be used as vaccination sites that Zients said could administer about 30,000 doses a week. These efforts mean that about 300 million Americans will have been vaccinated by the end of July.
Zients’s comments come as infection, hospitalization, and death rates from COVID-19 plummet at pace that can be described as pleasingly perplexing. Even health care experts scratch their heads. The 82,000 new cases of COVID that the US averaged over the last week represents a 24% drop from the week before. Hospitalizations dropped by 25%, and daily deaths by 5%.
Natalie Dean, PhD, an infectious disease expert at the University of Florida, tweeted: “I think the most likely explanation is a mix of policy and individual-level behavior change, as people react to what they see in the news and in their communities, but helped along by acquired immunity due to widespread infection plus targeted vaccination.”
Walensky warned that while the trends look good—great, even—there’s still a long way to go. “While cases and hospitalizations continue to move in the right direction, we remain in the midst of a very serious pandemic, and we continue to have more cases than we did, even during … last summer’s peak,” Walensky said. “And the continued spread of variants that are more transmissible could jeopardize the progress we have made in the last month … if we let our guard down. As of yesterday, we have confirmed 1277 cases of the B117 variant across 42 states, including the first case of the B117 variant with the E484K substitution that had previously been found in the UK. Nineteen cases of B1351 variant have been found across 10 states, and three cases of the P1 variant has been found in two states.”
The variants can be stopped by the same methods that have been used against COVID-19 all along, Walensky said. Wearing a well-fitted mask, social distancing, avoiding travel, crowds, hand hygiene, and getting vaccinated when possible. Walensky did not say that the public should forego wearing N95 masks, inasmuch as they are sorely needed by health care professionals, but that inference might be drawn from her remarks.
“For reasons supported by science, comfort, cost, and practicality, the CDC does not recommend routine use of N95 respirators for protection against COVID-19 by the general public,” Walensky said. “Abundant scientific laboratory data, epidemiologic investigations, and large population-level analyses demonstrate that masks now available to the general public are effective and are working. And there is little evidence that, when worn properly, well-fitting medical and cloth masks fail in disease transmission.”
Fauci also touted the importance of getting vaccinated, saying that the data so far are “starting to point to the fact that vaccine is important not only for the health of the individual—to protect them against infection and disease, including the variants that Dr. Walensky has mentioned just a moment ago—but it also has very important implications from a public health standpoint for interfering and diminishing the dynamics of the outbreak.”
Fauci talked about the danger of breakthrough infection; how some individuals who’ve been vaccinated can get reinfected with COVID-19. Why does that happen? It all has to do with the viral load. “The real question is: Is there a relationship between viral load and transmissibility?” said Fauci. “We know from ample studies over many years with HIV is that there’s a direct correlation between the viral load that an individual has—usually measured in the blood—and the likelihood that they will or will not transmit their infection, for example, to a sexual partner. The lower the viral load, the less likelihood of transmissibility. The higher the viral load, the higher the likelihood of transmissibility.”
Usually, the higher the viral load for such things as influenza and other respiratory illnesses, the more likely the transmission. The COVID-19 vaccines seem to be able to reduce the viral load.
Fauci cited two recent studies—one done in Spain and whose results were published in The Lancet on February 2—and one done in Israel whose results can be found in a preprint study on the MedRvix website—indicate that the COVID vaccines can slow the rate of contagiousness. They reduce the SARS-CoV-2 viral load, even shortly after getting the first dose.
Nunez-Smith described efforts to make sure that all Americans of whatever demographic group or race, get equal access to the COVID-19 vaccines, testing, and treatment. Federal programs have been developed to ensure that the “hardest hit” have access to those three. She said she’s been working closely with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop 3 antibody therapies for emergency use authorization (EUA). Nunez-Smith said that “these therapies have been shown to reduce hospitalization and improve outcomes for high-risk patients diagnosed with COVID-19,” adding that “the potential for these therapies is especially high in the communities that have been most affected by the pandemic.”
The programs have the ability to deliver the therapies to 38% of the black community, 42% of the Hispanic/Latino community, and 41% of the Asian community in the US. “And we also have reached into rural populations. So with regard to these therapies in particular, we will continue to keep you updated.”