WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal officials say the key component to getting the COVID-19 vaccine distributed across the country will lie in the hands of states, with help from major pharmacy chains, like CVS and Walgreens.
“We want to replicate what the experience you have with the flu vaccine — convenient to you, a tried-and-true system that we do hundreds of millions of vaccines through every year,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “That's the backbone of the approach we're taking.”
Yet, if flu vaccine rates are any indication, that backbone may not suffice.
Dr. Eric Schneider is with The Commonwealth Fund, an independent organization that studies health policy. They recently delved into previous vaccination rates to see how it might unfold for COVID-19.
“Our health care system does well at developing new technologies like these vaccines, which are really quite amazing, scientifically speaking,” Dr. Schneider said. “But we don't do as well at making sure those technologies are distributed to the people who need them most. And we're seeing that in the prior vaccination experience, and I’m worried we will see that with COVID-19.”
What did they find?
A mere 51% of Americans got the flu vaccine last year and only 38% got the H1N1 swine flu vaccine 10 years ago, which had a similar vaccine development timetable and pressure to COVID-19.
Those low vaccination rates matter because in order for the COVID-19 vaccine to create herd immunity in the U.S., between 70 and 90% of all Americans will need to get vaccinated.
“The concept of herd immunity really is developed out of vaccination programs because the question is ‘What proportion of the population needs to be vaccinated to prevent the circulation of a virus in the population?’” Dr. Schneider said.
Just getting that shot could vary depending on where you live, as the federal government is leaving that up to each state.
“That's going to be up to the nation's governors as they prioritize within their states,” HHS Secretary Azar said.
However, Dr. Schneider said that in order for the states to pull it off, they are going to need federal help.
“States are in incredible difficulty right now with their budgets and they need federal support,” he said. “Congress is considering a federal rescue package. That funding is really necessary to get states the support they need to vaccinate large numbers of people.”
Large numbers of people are now waiting for a rescue of their own from a virus that’s changed everything.
For a closer look at the results of the study on vaccination rates from The Commonwealth Fund, click here.