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Congressional committee debates vaccine distribution problems

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 2, 2021

Gretchen Leider, Walmart's vision center manager, gives Alice Collins a granola bar while she is under observation after receiving the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a Walmart in the Austin neighborhood, of Chicago, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021.  (Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times via Associated Press)
Gretchen Leider, Walmart's vision center manager, gives Alice Collins a granola bar while she is under observation after receiving the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a Walmart in the Austin neighborhood, of Chicago, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. (Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times via Associated Press)
By Nico Portuondo For The Spokesman-Review

WASHINGTON – State health officials from across the country urged a congressional committee to increase distribution of COVID-19 vaccine doses at a hearing Tuesday that also had Republicans and Democrats sparring over who was to blame for the slow vaccine rollout.

“We simply need more supply. Colorado is getting about 80,000 doses a week. We have the capacity for administering 300,000 doses a week right now,” Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told a subcommittee of the House Energy Commerce Committee.

Last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced that, as of Jan. 24, the seven-day rolling average for vaccinations administered in the state per day was 23,960 doses, while the state was getting about 100,000 doses per week. While no estimate has been given regarding Washington’s capacity to administer doses, state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah said on Jan. 25 that more Washingtonians were eligible to receive vaccinations than there were first doses.

The effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has varied greatly by state. For example, West Virginia has inoculated 10.8% of its population with at least one dose while Idaho only has vaccinated 4.5% of its population at least one dose. Still, all of the state public health officials at the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations recognized the need for more supply.

Many members of Congress, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., took the opportunity to praise former President Donald Trump’s handling of vaccine distribution and the COVID-19 pandemic as a whole. McMorris Rodgers joined fellow Republican lawmakers in praising Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership that developed multiple effective COVID-19 vaccines in record time under the Trump administration.

“The foundation of Operation Warp Speed is amazing,” McMorris Rodgers said.

“I hope that the new administration, President Biden and the officials, will stop trying to rewrite history … and stop saying that it was a dismal failure.”

But some of the state public health officials and Democratic lawmakers criticized Trump for leaving states on their own to figure out vaccination plans, and that he worsened the spread of COVID-19 by flouting public health guidelines like the importance of wearing a mask.

“The biggest concerns across the country are the lack of COVID vaccine, and also the confusion caused by the Trump administration’s lack of guidance to states in the early days of their vaccination campaigns,” said Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., a former physician.

Republican lawmakers turned the criticism from Trump to state officials for the number of vaccines distributed to states that had not been used. Nationally, only about 65% of the nearly 50 million doses distributed to states have been given to eligible citizens.

Dr. Courtney N. Phillips, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health, said many of the unused doses are intentionally being saved so that second doses of COVID-19 vaccines can be guaranteed to vaccine recipients. With vaccine supplies uncertain, Phillips said, health care providers want to ensure that recipients get the second dose required for full protection.

Still, there was some tension between some of the federal and state officials over whether the federal government was to blame for the slow rollout.

“Complaining about not getting enough vaccine is like complaining about the size of your meal when you should be grateful for having food on the table,” said Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., to state public health officials during the hearing.

With clear need for more doses, President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that his administration will increase the weekly vaccine supply to states to 10.5 million doses, a 22% increase since he took office Jan. 20.

Several public health officials and members of Congress at the hearing said Biden’s comprehensive COVID-19 plan already has increased transparency by letting state officials know how many vaccination doses they will receive at least three weeks in advance.

“I am hopeful that the Biden administration’s national COVID-19 strategy, and that the steps it has already taken, will get this country back on course,” Schrier said.

She also particularly praised Kittitas County, which she represents, for developing a local vaccination plan that has administered 98% of its vaccination doses.

State public health officials and lawmakers saw equitable access to vaccinations, especially for low-income groups and communities of color, as a priority during the meeting. Pop-up tents and mobile sites were brought up as methods to vaccinate communities with little access to sophisticated health care facilities.

“We don’t want to leave any group behind,” said Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive. “Rapidity without equity will result in continued disparity.”

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