The swift development of highly effective vaccines for the novel coronavirus was a marvel of modern science, holding out the prospect of an early end to a pandemic that has rampaged across the country.

But creating vaccines is one thing; getting them administered is another. That part of the process is not a marvel but a muddle.

In mid-December, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said 20 million Americans would get shots by the end of the year. By Jan. 8, 21.4 million doses had been distributed, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but only 5.9 million had been administered. In Illinois, only 28% of the 737,000 doses have actually found their way into arms.

This sluggish rollout coincides with continued tragedy. On Thursday, more than 4,000 people died in the United States from COVID-19, the third straight day of record fatalities. More than 360,000 deaths have occurred. And a new, more contagious strain of the virus that first appeared in Britain has been detected in at least eight U.S. states.

What’s holding up actual vaccinations? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the federal government and state governments just failed to ramp up sufficiently for a mass inoculation program, which they knew was coming. With months to get ready — Pfizer reported the success of its vaccine trial on Nov. 9 — they seem to have been caught unprepared for the logistical challenges.

Why didn’t federal and state officials create mass vaccination training programs? Call on the National Guard, retired medical personnel, college nursing students to administer shots? Open field houses and park districts and stadiums for quicker, more efficient vaccinations? Is that wishful thinking?

In Illinois, there have been successes. Dr. Sadiya Khan, an assistant professor and epidemiologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told us that large hospitals have done a good job of vaccinating doctors, nurses and other employees who work with patients. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said on Jan. 6 that one-third of all health care workers have gotten at least one of the two shots needed.

But moving from big facilities to millions of individuals is a more complex endeavor. This is a major challenge everywhere, not just in this country. France has managed to inoculate only 45,000 people, and the Netherlands didn’t even start until Jan. 6.

Planning was complicated in the U.S. by uncertainty about how many doses would be coming and when. The rollout unfortunately coincided with the December holidays, which slow almost every human activity. Unlike many vaccines, these are in limited supply. That being the case, states have targeted various groups in order of priority, with medical workers and nursing home residents and staff first in line. Next on the list in Illinois are “front-line essential workers,” including first responders, teachers, grocery employees and transit personnel.

Reaching a broader population won’t be simple. We were glad to hear Pritzker say the National Guard will be used to set up mass vaccination sites. Health departments in Cook and Lake counties plan to administer shots. The state and local governments need to be doing everything possible right now to shift into high gear. Mayor Lori Lightfoot sounded the alarm days ago, calling for an “exponential increase in the amount of vaccine that’s available to cities and towns all over the country.”

On Friday, President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team said that after taking office, he would release nearly all available vaccines instead of holding back enough for the required second dosages. He’s betting on producers being able to continually refill the pipeline. The fact that there are conflicting opinions about the optimum rollout isn’t reassuring, but if Biden is choosing urgency over prudence, that’s the right call. People are still getting sick and dying. The country can’t fully reopen the economy and send people back to work until the vaccine is broadly distributed.

As Pritzker said, “This is a race to get vaccines in people’s arms as fast as possible.” It’s a race we can’t afford to lose.

— Chicago Tribune

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