On Friday, President Joe Biden toured a state-of-the-art coronavirus vaccine plant, aiming to show progress even as extreme winter weather across the U.S. handed his first major setback to his vaccination campaign, delaying shipment of about 6 million doses and causing temporary closures in many communities of inoculation sites.
“While acknowledging the weather is “slowing the distribution,” Biden said at the Pfizer plant in Michigan that he believes “by the end of this year we will approach normalcy.” His speech melded a recitation of the achievements of his administration facing the pandemic in its first month, a vigorous pitch for his $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill and his predecessor’s criticism.
As three days’ worth of vaccine shipments were temporarily delayed, the disruptions caused by cold temperatures, snow and ice left the White House and states scrambling to make up lost ground. Due to a storm affecting the nation’s capital, even the president’s trip to see Pfizer’s largest plant was pushed back a day.
White House coronavirus response advisor Andy Slavitt said before the trip, the federal government, states and local vaccinators will have to redouble efforts after the interruptions to catch up. The setback comes just as it seemed that the vaccination campaign was on the verge of hitting its stride. In the next several days, all of the backlogged doses should be delivered, Slavitt said, still confident that the pace of vaccinations will recover.
In the first 100 days of his administration, Biden set a goal of administering 100 million shots, and he said Friday it’s still on track and it’s just a start.
He went on to say his administration could deliver 600 million doses to Americans by the end of July. Nevertheless, Biden warned that the timetable could change, citing the current weather delays and concerns about new virus strains, as well as the possibility of fluctuating production rates.
“By the end of this year, I believe we’ll be approaching normalcy,” he said. “This Christmas, God willing, will be different from last, but I can’t make that commitment to you.”
Taking a swipe at former President Donald Trump, whom he did not quote by name, Biden permitted two highly effective vaccines to be approved by the previous administration. But “having a vaccine at your disposal is one thing, the problem was how to get to people’s arms.”
One of the two federally approved COVID-19 shots is produced by the Pfizer plant that Biden toured near Kalamazoo. The delivery of both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been impacted by weather-related delays.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, announcing Biden before the speech, called his administration “a great ally” and cited a number of actions that have benefited the company as it searched for ways to boost efficiency. The company said in a press release that it ships an average of 5 million doses a week in the U.S., and plans to more than double that by the end of March.
Biden walked through a “freezer farm” area of the factory, which houses some 350 ultra-cold freezers, each able to store 360,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine. The president, double-masked, stopped to speak with some of the staff.
The scene contrasted sharply with the vibe across most of the nation, where change was on hold. Poor weather forced several injection sites, from Texas to New England, to briefly close, and held up shipments of required doses.
The storm stymied 77-year-old Bill Bayne in his search of his second dose in Memphis, a city where some of the doses were stuck. He got his first shot on Jan. 29 and was told that sometime this week he would hear back about the second. No notice came when local vaccination sites were shut down.
The eight inches of snow outside his home is the most he has seen in 50 years of living there, Bayne said.
Bayne said, “I want that shot badly enough.” “Some way, I would have gotten there.”
The 6 million doses delayed would not spoil and the vaccine is “safe and sound” under refrigeration, White House advisor Slavitt said.
But as shipments restart and ramp up, vaccinators will have to work overtime to get shots into weapons in neighbourhoods around the country. Slavitt told reporters at the White House coronavirus briefing, “We as a whole nation will have to pull together to get back on track.”
Slavitt said Friday about 1.4 million doses were being delivered as the work starts to clear the backlog.
A confluence of variables combining to throw off the vaccination effort. First, with snowed-in staff, shippers like FedEx, UPS and pharmaceutical distributor McKesson all faced challenges. Then, Slavitt said, road closures prevented trucks from delivering their assigned vaccine doses in several states. And eventually, in areas with power outages, there were more than 2,000 vaccination sites.
The government is also pushing forward with plans to open five new mass vaccination centres, one in Philadelphia and four more in Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville, Florida.
In the week that ended Tuesday, the U.S. distributed an average of 1.7 million doses a day, proof that the speed of the vaccine programme was picking up. Now, the problem is how long it will take to recover from the effects of the delays associated with the weather.
The delays were so serious that Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts indicated that he would explore sending the national guard of his state to gather doses from icebound shipping hubs in Memphis, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky.
The Virginia Department of Health announced that about 90 percent of its planned 120,000 doses were expected to be delayed this week and cautioned that delays could ripple through next week.
The state health department said that none of the more than 163,000 first and second doses of the Moderna vaccine expected to arrive this week were delivered in North Carolina. Of the approximately 127,000 anticipated Pfizer vaccines, only a small number have been delivered.
In order to make up appointments from last week, Oklahoma moved to reschedule vaccine clinics to this weekend, when it expects its 110,000 doses to be shipped.