President Biden kicked off his term by swiftly issuing a series of executive orders and sharing an actual plan to combat the unchecked, raging coronavirus pandemic — which he warned will get worse before it gets better and may kill as many as 600,000 Americans in grim days ahead.
Biden put the federal government squarely in the Covid-19 battle, promising to work with states and local governments but not, as his predecessor had, to shove huge roles and responsibilities on a host of others without talking with or helping them thereafter.
He said his strategies and tactics would rely on science and the best experts available, not on personal and political cronies or personalities popping up on TV broadcasts or extremist online sites.
His priorities include 100 million shots in arms in his first 100 days in office.
Digging nation out of deep holes
Biden, of course, starts out with mountains of crises, many intertwined with the pandemic and keeping tens of millions of Americans jobless, hungry, fearful of losing their housing and with their children trying to get educations at home. Even people in better stead have grown weary of working from and staying at home, restricted from common activities like relaxed shopping, getting a casual haircut, or freely going to movies, restaurants, bars, plays, or sporting events.
The new president urged Americans to get the politics out of public health measures and to double down on them, including continuing to wash their hands aggressively, cover their faces, keep distances from each other, avoid closed and confined spaces, and stay at home — with the company only of members of a single household.
Biden’s executive orders made key parts of these protective measures a requirement — on federal property, as well as on federally regulated public transportation, including airlines, as well as cross-state trains and buses. The president and his experts have argued that, until the coronavirus vaccination programs can be improved and scaled-up — big time — the simple and commonsense steps could save tens of thousands of lives.
The vaccine roll-out, meantime, has taken a marvel of medical science — rapid development of safe and effective shots — and mired it in some of the shambolic aspects of the previous regime: over promising and under delivering.
Jump-starting the rocky vaccination roll out
After jacking up public optimism about the coronavirus vaccines, insisting that ample supplies of them were available, and urging tens of millions more people to clamor for shots immediately, Trump officials bolted for the exits, leaving Biden and company with a “total mess.”
For the vaccine to create the crucial “herd immunity” that would let the nation return to greater normality, hundreds of millions of Americans must be vaccinated, experts say. For months, a previous White House boasted that vaccine makers were ready to roll out hundreds of millions of doses.
Well, sort of.
Think Tesla cars (months of waiting), rather than Apple iPhones (enthusiast lines, followed by snappy, large-scale product deliveries). Or maybe, as the jibe goes, what people say and what dogs hear.
In recent months, maybe outside of the notice of people inundated with the cacophony surrounding the presidential campaign, Big Pharma makers rolled back glowing estimates on vaccine production — roughly by half. They reported that their manufacturing and supply chain challenges were greater than estimated. They have gotten better at producing what many would regard as a gee-whiz, cutting edge product, which, among other things, requires super cold storage and quick use after being pulled from freezers.
Federal officials, with military mindsets about logistics, have shipped 40 million doses, with 19 million or so of them having gotten into people’s arms, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported as of Jan. 22.
Supply shortages and logistics jams
That is a pokey pace for the jabs, not warp speed. But even as states and local governments boost vaccination campaigns, and the efforts move out of easier to find and administer groups like health workers or the elderly, sick, and injured in long-term care facilities, vaccine shortfalls and logistics issues have become nightmarish. Provider phone lines have been jammed, long queues have formed, numbers of appointments have been made — and canceled, as officials have struggled with shortages of vaccine supplies.
More and different vaccines may be on the way within weeks from other makers. But the existing products are rolling out at the rate of 4 million-plus or so doses per week — a paltry supply in comparison with giant demand from coast-to-coast. It may be April, at least, before this Grand Canyon-sized gap can begin to close.
Other issues, in the meantime, imperil the efficient and effective vaccination effort. Biden officials are racing to resolve the huge miscue that results from their predecessors’ reliance of proprietary software and military logistics in what then was known as Operation Warp Speed. It seems the Star Trek crowd before had misguided “fun” in developing Tiberius, a crucial tracking system that they named after the sci-fi show’s Capt. Kirk (that’s his middle name). The system and those using it have taken the many data inputs in Tiberius, causing crazy-making results for front-line officials trying to vaccinate the public, especially in mass sites.
That’s because, burned once in December with a controversy, federal officials have turned ultra-conservative about telling recipients about vaccine supplies. They vary greatly. Notice is not received until the last moment. This has created headaches for public health officials, grappling already with jerry-rigged and overwhelmed appointment systems for patients wanting shots. They complain that they cannot schedule vaccinations — and start to hold down the frustration and outrage — and keep appointments with supplies so uncertain.
They, in turn, may come under greater fire, as scrutiny intensifies as to whether doses are getting wasted (simply discarded or tossed due to spoilage) and whether vaccination programs are equitable and maximizing the protections by getting to appropriate target groups — should they be older, younger but in essential jobs, hard-hit people of color, nonresidents of an area?
Long list of challenges
Biden has pledged federal help with logistics, supply chain, and scheduling challenges for vaccine makers, as well as governments and organizations giving shots. He says he will get the National Guard to help, with the federal government establishing nationwide mass vaccination sites in cooperation with local authorities. He hopes to muster a sizable volunteer effort to get already trained personnel (retired doctors and nurses and others) to assist in vaccination campaigns. His team is campaigning, with prominent and influential people (including the living ex-presidents, except Trump), to communicate about the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness and to combat misinformation and hesitancy.
Biden also has said the federal government will boost Covid-19 testing and contract tracing, and he has issued orders to tackle obstacles the hungry and jobless may confront due to the pandemic. Don’t forget that he has told Congress that he wants members to pass a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, atop a $900 billion deal that lawmakers already approved, after months of delay, in December.
Based on just this first week in office, who, again, said Biden was “sleepy Joe?”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent health care. This has become an ordeal due to the skyrocketing cost, complexity, and uncertainty of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs. At a time when the U.S. health care system has been exhausted by the coronavirus pandemic, we need to give it all the support we can.
The clock is ticking with the already deadly coronavirus, which experts say, is doing what viruses do: It is mutating as it tears through the United States and the world. As long as it stays unchecked and finds a plentiful supply of hosts, the coronavirus is spawning variants — which experts are detecting and finding more easily spread and potentially more lethal. So far, the speedily developed vaccines appear to work against the familiar bug and its variants. We can’t waste time and let the virus blow up further out of control and maybe out of reach of vaccines.
Yes, rigorous oversight of government spending and conduct is a must. But, as Biden has replied to the Goldilocks sniping (too little, too big, too hard, too soft …) of his coronavirus-fighting efforts already, C’mon, man! The Republicans on Capitol Hill, too, need to tread with care with their sudden fretting about deficits and spending — hmm, after handing trillions of dollars to plutocrats and the wealthiest corporations, or padding the most recent coronavirus relief measure with tax breaks for three martini lunches? We have much work to do, with grave urgency, to end the pandemic and get ourselves to a better place.