States Decry Vaccine Shortages at House Hearing

To get shots in the arms of more Americans, states pushed the federal government Tuesday to boost its vaccine supply and its communication.

This still from a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee livestreamed via Youtube on Tuesday shows Rep. David McKinley holding up last year’s guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the novel coronavirus. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — State officials clamored Tuesday at the House for reliable projections of how many vaccine injections they can expect each week, calling this the base level of what is needed to ramp up the war on Covid-19. 

“We simply need more supply,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, joining a videoconference organized this morning by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Praising the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed for supporting the development of two working vaccines against the novel coronavirus, Ryan noted that Colorado is administrating 80,000 dosages of the vaccine a week.

Ryan asked for more federal collaboration, however, so that the state can meet its capacity of carrying out 300,000 weekly injections. With a master’s in public health, Ryan told the committee that her background is in epidemiology.

Along with Democratic committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., Congresswoman Diana DeGette, who chairs the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, heaped blamed for the vaccine shortages on confusion sowed by former President Donald Trump.

“Last year, we saw endless disruption and chaos as our country was adrift in the absence of strong, competent federal leadership,” DeGette, who also hails from Colorado, said Tuesday.,

Referencing the recent spread of coronavirus mutations, DeGette remarked that “now’s the time to finally double down on our [vaccination] efforts.”

On the Republican side of the committee, however, Congressman David McKinley called it baseless to assert that the federal guidance on the virus was lacking while Trump was in office.

Holding up a physical copy of the playbook published this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the West Virginia lawmaker pointed his finger at states.

“Complaining about not getting enough vaccines is like complaining about the size of your meal when you should be grateful to have food on the table,” McKinley said.

Officials from Illinois, Louisiana, West Virginia and Michigan joined Colorado’s Ryan in dialing in to offer their takes on what the federal government can do to help improve the national vaccination effort. 

All five witnesses, including Dr. Ngozi Ezike, a medical doctor who is director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said their states had the capacity to distribute more vaccines than they were being sent.

“From the outset, vaccination efforts in Illinois and throughout the state have been limited by inconsistent messages regarding allocations,” Ezike said. “Operation Warp speed promised to Illinois and the nation a steady cadence of vaccine but oftentimes fell short with reduced or postponed allocations which left Illinois receiving fewer than expected doses.”

Illinois has seen more than 1 million cases of Covid-19 cases and roughly 20,000 deaths in the last year.

She pushed for the federal government to continue providing paid sick leave and stimulus checks “to encourage compliance with distancing quarantine and isolation orders.”

“To accelerate immunizations, we need our federal partners to align their efforts with ours to help solve practical operational issues,” Ezike said.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive and chief deputy director of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told the committee that his state has been “laser-focused” on both equity and rapidity.

“We have set the ambitious but attainable goal of having no disparity in vaccination rates across racial and ethnic groups,” said Khaldun, who has seen the pandemic on the frontlines as a practicing physician. “It is important that vaccination efforts move forward expeditiously without compromising equity. It’s a tragedy, but not a surprise, that Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color.”

Khaldun asked for help “funding to address equitable vaccine distribution,” like mobile clinics.

West Virginia’s “coronavirus czar,” Clay Marsh, is a medical doctor as well. Dr. Marsh spoke to the committee about how his home state announced Friday that it had become the first in the nation to complete its second round of vaccinations in all its long-term care facilities. The state has already given roughly 10.8% of its population a single dose, according to data collected by The New York Times.

Marsh noted how the state observed from its “raw data … that 75% of those who died were over 70 years old,” so it partnered pharmacies with long-term care facilities where most residents are 70 or older.

Where the federal government can help West Virginia, he testified, is in implementing a tool that allows health officers from around the country to swap strategies on vaccine distribution.

Republican Congresswoman Cathy Rodgers of Washington state asked the panel of witnesses to confirm that none of them expected the vaccines to be available just 10 months into the pandemic, and that a vaccine program of this scale has never been attempted before. All officials confirmed both. She questioned whether a localized approach would be better in terms of implementation, pointing to West Virginia, which had not followed CDC guidance for vaccine distribution but achieved good results.

Pallone disagreed with Rodgers.

“Part of the problem that I saw over the last nine months under Trump was that states were essentially left alone and were sometimes competing with each other for masks and gloves and supplies and sometimes being gouged with prices,” he said. “I’ve said all along that we need a national strategy, which is what Biden is trying to accomplish.”

Biden implemented a national strategy last week that gives notice to states three weeks in advance about the number of doses they can expect to receive. Khaldun said this has been very helpful and that her state would be thrilled about the American Rescue Plan, which could provide an additional 20 billion in a national vaccination program but is facing GOP opposition.

“We absolutely need more funding to build out our staff,” Khaldun said.

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