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What The Biden Administration Is Doing To Speed Up The Vaccine Rollout

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you are waiting patiently or not so patiently for the COVID vaccine, the White House wants you to know they're doing everything they can to speed things up. That was the message at today's briefing from President Biden's COVID-19 response team - that they are increasing vaccine supply, opening more vaccination sites, mobilizing more people to give the shots. So why does it still seem so slow? We're going to try to get some answers from Andy Slavitt. He was one of the folks briefing today. He is senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 response team, and he's here now.

Andy Slavitt, welcome back.

ANDY SLAVITT: Thank you. Good to be back.

KELLY: So this week - this is the week that some 6,500 pharmacies across the country are going to get doses of the vaccine, which is great. But it's got a lot of people already wondering how they're going to access those doses because getting appointments has been such a scramble for so many people. What are - what is the plan to keep this rollout to pharmacies from making an already chaotic process more chaotic?

SLAVITT: Well, we're in a situation, and we will be for a little while, of undersupply. I would love to tell you, Mary Louise and all the listeners, that we inherited a large stockpile of vaccines. I think at one point, we thought that there was a lot of manufacturing that had gone on over the last year and that that would be the case. It wasn't, and I think our job is to level with folks.

But the good news is we are increasing production every week. We've increased production that we've delivered to states by over 20%. We are opening a hundred community vaccination centers, including two that are open already. We are, as you said, starting to move directly into what we're calling a federal retail pharmacy program so that there'll be more places for the drugs to be available - sorry - the vaccines to be available.

And, you know, I think people are going to have to probably continue to be more patient than they want to be. But in the meantime, they should know that 40 million-plus shots have gone out. And a lot of people, particularly those at highest risk, have been able to get their first vaccines and, many, their second.

KELLY: You've said a couple things I want to follow up on, but let me start just with the - stay with the question on the pharmacies and how people should be trying to get those doses if it's their turn. You noted in the briefing this morning that most pharmacies already have their own appointment sites. Are you working towards any kind of more unified system where we're not all trying to register at every pharmacy and the hospital and the local health authority and everywhere else?

SLAVITT: Well, look. If we were designing a system with a clean sheet of paper, we might have done it differently. But that's not...

KELLY: Yeah. But we are where we are. So...

SLAVITT: Exactly. That's not where we are. And so we are looking at - today many of the pharmacies have their own websites. And I was just on a call today with several of the pharmacies, and they recognize that there's opportunities to continue to make them better. And then I think what we need to do is find a way - and we're looking at various options - to make it easier for someone who wants to know, hey, if there's a vaccine near me - maybe it's not at my nearest pharmacy. Maybe it's at a pharmacy that's two pharmacies away, or maybe it's at a hospital or a clinic. How do we help people find the answer to that? And so we're working on that. I don't have anything to announce today. But I can assure you that we're working hard on a solution to that question.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, we're hearing reporting earlier this hour - reporter Blake Farmer saying that in Tennessee, the advice is register in every single county. I'm just thinking of how time-consuming that is and how frustrating it is...

SLAVITT: Well...

KELLY: ...Particularly given we're right now targeting the older segment of the population.

SLAVITT: Well, one of the things that's happening - and it's a little bit concerning, and it should be concerning to all of us - is that people who are more tech savvy and who have more time on their hands - maybe they have more kids or grandkids - they're the ones that are locking up a lot of these appointments. And people who are - perhaps don't have as much technology or maybe aren't as fluid with technology and don't have all of those kinds of resources or time are getting locked out.

And we're seeing a real health equity issue that I think we all need to do our best to emerge. I mean, if - I'm telling you we're talking, for most people, about waiting what will likely be a matter of weeks, maybe a month or more. But we're not talking about significantly prolonged period of time. And so I know it feels like...

KELLY: Well, and can the White House do anything about that?

SLAVITT: Well, absolutely. You know, the things that we are doing are, No. 1, we are working with the two manufacturers - I think people know that there's two manufacturers, Pfizer and Moderna - to increase their supply and increase it every week. And each week so far, we've been able to announce additional volume. And we've been growing that volume. We've been using the Defense Production Act, as we talked about last week.

And these are all small steps. None of them are silver bullets. I don't think this is going to be an administration that's going to overpromise or promise silver bullets. But they're - you know, these are all small gains. And then at the end of February, beginning of March, you know, we'll hope to hear what the FDA has to say about a third vaccine, which is a very promising vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. And so we'll let the FDA do their jobs, of course. But if we get good news there, that will, of course, mean another bump.

KELLY: One follow-up on the inequities that you noted, too. I spoke the other day with the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Raul Ruiz. He is sounding the alarm about low vaccination rates in Latino communities because, as you know, people don't all have the same Internet access to make appointments or maybe don't have a car to get to those appointments. He's calling for vaccination sites to be set up at, say, meatpacking plants. Here's what he told us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RAUL RUIZ: If the workplace is the site of risk, then we need to go to the workplace to minimize and mitigate that risk. That is smart public health.

KELLY: Is that something, Andy Slavitt, that you're considering - vaccination sites at workplaces?

SLAVITT: I'll tell you what we are considering, which are - is mobile vaccination centers that can move from place to place. They can go to workplaces. They can go to churches. They can go to communities because he's exactly right. We shouldn't make people who - like this have to chase vaccines. The vaccines have to chase people. And when I - we talk to, you know, behavioral economists, people who study this stuff, they say exactly what the congressman says - that if you eliminate friction, if you make it easier for people, you'll increase that vaccination rate.

We see other things that are working as well. We see that in North Carolina, they just had a big event at a football field, and they reserved appointments for people from low-income communities and racial ethnic minorities. And they - that had really good results. So hopefully, people around the country will be doing things like that because if you don't make that kind of effort, then people shouldn't be surprised that they don't get a good result.

KELLY: Yeah. And just to follow up - we have about a minute left - but on the supply of vaccine, what is the biggest hitch right now?

SLAVITT: Well, I was just on a call today with the CEOs of all of the pharma companies that are either producing vaccines or have ones in flight. It wouldn't surprise you that there are multiple calls every day. You know, these - this isn't like producing shoes. This is like producing - we have to produce a liquid at one plant, and at another plant, you have to do something called fill and finish. And each of those requires a number of ingredients and supplies, and each of those has its own issues and bottlenecks. Now, the good news is everybody is solving those problems day by day, bit by bit as we go along and increasing their volume. So I'm more encouraged today, but that doesn't mean that we're going to have an answer to everyone's vaccine just as soon as they want it.

KELLY: That is Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 response team.

Thanks very much for taking the time to update us.

SLAVITT: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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