Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

The Biden administration said it would release nearly all available doses later this month.

Jonathan Wolfe


Credit…The New York Times

Weeks into the American vaccination effort and the country is terribly behind schedule. Of the roughly 21.5 million doses that have been distributed, only about six million have been injected into the arms of Americans, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One solution, President-elect Joe Biden believes, is to not hold back.

His administration announced today that it would release nearly all available vaccine doses when Mr. Biden assumed office later this month. That’s in contrast with the Trump administration’s practice of holding back roughly half of the vaccine supply to ensure enough supply for a second dose. (Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses given weeks apart.)

Releasing a vast majority of the vaccine doses would go against the recommendation of officials from the Food and Drug Administration, but a transition official told The Times that Biden would use the Defense Production Act, if needed, to ensure that enough doses were available.

To be sure, there are many reasons for the painfully slow rollout. Some experts say distribution has sputtered because of a lack of administering capacity and several logistical hurdles, rather than a severe shortage of doses.

“This is not the problem we’re trying to solve right now,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health expert at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

But releasing the full supply of vaccines could ease a critical bottleneck. The announcement coincided with a letter from eight Democratic governors imploring the Trump administration to release all available doses to the states as soon as possible.

During an interview this week with a local radio station, Mr. Biden also said he planned to set up thousands of federally-run vaccination sites across the country. They would be in places like high school gyms and sports stadiums, and staffed by federal workers, volunteers, FEMA, the military and others.

This week, under intense criticism about the slow pace of the rollout, the Trump administration began urging states to start vaccinating people beyond the first priority group — the nation’s 22 million health care workers and three million residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

“It would be much better to move quickly and end up vaccinating some lower-priority people than to let vaccines sit around while states try to micromanage this process,” said Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary. “Faster administration would save lives right now, which means we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Public health officials worry that upending the months of discussions about who should get the vaccine first could bring more chaos to the rollout and increase the likelihood that more vulnerable Americans could be skipped over.

Covid-19 Vaccines ›

Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.

Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.

Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.

No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

Other ideas. The Times’s Opinion section asked public health experts for their thoughts on how to speed up vaccine delivery. Their ideas include using a lottery system, targeting hot spots, using algorithms for distribution and not pressuring those who are hesitant about the vaccine to take their doses.

The Labor Department reported a loss of 140,000 jobs in December — the first net decline in payrolls since April and was a discouraging reversal to a once promising recovery.

Why has job growth suffered? Blame the resurgent pandemic.

As cases surged this fall, state and local officials reimposed restrictions on businesses like restaurants and hotels, and consumers pulled back on spending. It’s a strong sign that the economy won’t fully recover until the pandemic is under control.

Despite the gloomy report, my colleague Neil Irwin, who covers the economy, argued that there is an opportunity for 2021 “to be the year of a remarkable bounce-back.”

With the Democrats in control of Congress and the presidency, there’s a greater chance for a fiscal stimulus; non-hospitality sectors — like construction and real estate — are improving; and the prospect of widespread vaccination could lead to a boom in leisure activity later this year.

Here’s a roundup of restrictions in all 50 states.

I am one of 22 women on the U.S. women’s over 60s field hockey team. We were supposed to compete in the 2021 Masters World Cup tournament in Cape Town, South Africa, in September, but the pandemic forced its cancellation. To keep our team cohesive and to encourage fitness during the pandemic, we’ve participated in a variety of challenges in which we track exercise, nutrition, mental health improvement and community service, recording our progress on a variety of online tools. Then, we meet via Zoom periodically to share “chalk talks,” check in with each other, celebrate milestones and otherwise engage in silliness. I’ve never felt more part of a team before, and for this I am grateful.

— Debbie Wile, The Villages, Fla.

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Jonathan Wolfe