US health secretary Alex Azar has insisted the Trump administration does have a plan to distribute coronavirus vaccines, after President-elect Joe Biden said he had not seen a detailed blueprint.
“With all respect, that’s just nonsense,” Azar told Fox News Sunday.
Azar and other officials were pressed on the Covid-19 response as the US experiences its worst outbreak since the spring while preparing to distribute a vaccine.
There were 2,254 new Covid deaths in the US on Saturday, according to Johns Hopkins University, making the full death toll 280,979 from nearly 14.6m cases. For the first time since the early days of the pandemic, the seven-day rolling average of deaths has passed 2,000.
On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will consider whether to to provide emergency use authorization for a vaccine developed by Pfizer. If it does, the first round is expected to be distributed in the following 24 hours.
In the first phase of distribution, vaccines will be allocated to 21 million healthcare workers and 3 million residents and staff of long-term care facilities, following guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week. Health officials estimate 40 million doses of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna will be distributed by the end of December.
On Friday, Biden said his team had been in touch with the Trump administration about the vaccine rollout.
“There is no detailed plan, that we’ve seen anyway, as to how you get the vaccine out of a container, into an injection syringe, into somebody’s arm,” Biden said.
Azar said the distribution plan was being run by the military and private sector and would use retail pharmacies, public health departments and community health centers.
Dr Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific officer of the administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program, told CBS’s Face the Nation he would meet Biden this week.
“We really look forward to it, because actually things have been really very appropriately planned,” Slaoui said, adding that “confusion” may have arisen because the government’s plan relies on state health agencies.
“I think the plans are there, and I feel confident that once we will explain it, everything in detail, I hope the new transition team will understand,” he said.
Asked if Trump’s skepticism about masks and repeated downplaying of the pandemic had exacerbated its effects, Azar said the spike in cases was about behavior.
“We need people to renew their commitment,” he said.
On ABC’s This Week, Azar insisted the Trump administration supports masks – even after the president held a rally on Saturday night in Georgia where people mostly did not wear them. Host George Stephanopoulos also asked about the White House planning large holiday parties with up to 900 guests.
“Our advice remains the same in any context, which is wash your hands, watch your distance, wear face coverings when you can’t watch your distance and be careful of those indoor settings,” Azar said.
On NBC’s Meet the Press, another member of the White House coronavirus taskforce, Deborah Birx, was questioned about the contradictions between Trump’s actions and comments and public health guidance.
“I hear community members parroting back those situations, parroting back that masks don’t work, parroting back that we should work towards herd immunity, parroting back that gatherings don’t result in super-spreading events,” Birx said. “And I think our job is to constantly say those are myths.”
Asked about the holiday parties, Birx underlined that being indoors without a mask presents an opportunity to spread the virus.
“You cannot gather without masks in any indoor or close outdoor situation,” she said.
Birx warned that Americans must follow Covid-19 guidelines to prevent hospital overcrowding and to limit the spread of the virus, even with a vaccine on the way.
“The vaccine is critical, but it’s not going to save us from this current surge,” Birx said. “Only we can save us from this current surge.”
Slaoui said the most susceptible populations should see the effect of the vaccine in January or February. “But on a population basis, for our lives to start getting back to normal, we’re talking about April or May,” he told CBS.
In an interview with CNN’s State of the Union, Slaoui endorsed Biden’s plan to require Americans to wear a mask for the first 100 days after he is inaugurated on 20 January.
“I think it’s a good idea – it’s never too late,” Slaoui said. “This pandemic is ravaging the country.”