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Why is the COVID-19 vaccine rollout failing—and how can it be fixed?

Incoming U.S. President Joe Biden must lead a national all-hands-on-deck effort to help distribute vaccines within local communities, says Stephen Flynn, founding director of Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

The United States rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has been running far behind schedule, as only 4.5 million people have received an initial dose—15 million fewer inoculations than the federal government had promised by the end of 2020. At the current rate, the U.S. would need almost a decade to meet its goal of inoculating 80 percent of the population against the coronavirus. 

The need for vaccines has never been more urgent. More than 20.4 million people in the U.S. have been infected, more than 350,000 have died, and caseloads continue to rise.

Stephen Flynn, director of the Global Resilience Institute. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“No major crisis in the last 100 years has been as badly managed by our national leaders as this pandemic,” says Stephen Flynn, founding director of Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute. “At every level, the systems that we have in place for dealing with this disaster and its consequences have been failing us.”

Flynn believes there is reason to expect improvement when Joe Biden takes over as U.S. president on Jan. 20—but he fears any delay in providing vaccines could have dangerous consequences.

“The risk of the current delays with rolling out vaccinations is that it gives the virus time to mutate in ways that potentially may make it even more deadly,” says Flynn, who served as a national security and Homeland Security advisor to four presidential administrations on both sides of the aisle. “There’s always a worry that you could get a new mutation that reduces the effectiveness of the vaccines.”

Why is the vaccine distribution being managed so poorly? Flynn says the vaccine rollout has faced three problems:

  • A public health structure that was already weak before the pandemic. “Our healthcare system is made to take care of the sickest of the sick,” Flynn says. “What we don’t have is an ongoing investment in keeping people healthy. So when we face a pandemic, we have an inversion of the kind of capabilities that our healthcare system needs to provide.”
  • States that have been overwhelmed by the ongoing health emergency. COVID-19 cases have been surging since Thanksgiving, resulting in a record 125,544 U.S. hospitalizations on Sunday. Exhausted healthcare systems have been unable to focus on planning and executing mass vaccinations.
  • A falloff of revenues to be invested in public health. The economic consequences of COVID-19 have caused local tax revenues to plummet throughout the U.S., notes Flynn, and the federal government has failed to provide the necessary emergency funding.

President Donald Trump has insisted that the federal government has fulfilled its responsibility by supporting the development of vaccines and then distributing them to the states. 

Biden has vowed to fully vaccinate 50 million people over the initial 100 days of his administration. To meet that goal, Flynn says, the incoming president must establish a national standard to which all states will be held accountable—and then urge Congress to allocate the necessary funds.

“The incoming administration will almost certainly go back to Congress and say that more resources need to be provided,” Flynn says. 

Additionally, says Flynn, Biden must oversee the creation of volunteer forces to help administer the vaccine.

“We need to draw on a reserve corps of people who can be trained, or retirees with skills who can be brought back into the system,” Flynn says. “This needs to be an all-hands-on-deck moment where we recruit and deploy all of the skilled labor forces we can find.”

Biden also must defeat the forces of misinformation that are convincing people to not accept the COVID-19 vaccine, Flynn says. The Global Resilience Institute and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences have contributed to that mission by launching free digital educational modules for the general public: COVID-19: Vaccines 101.

“In order for this to work, the message is going to have to be getting down into the community level—communicated by trusted local leaders,” Flynn says. “Because trust is one of the most challenging issues we’re now facing in terms of people being willing to be vaccinated. And so this is about faith-based organizations and other groups with ties into the community. Those folks have to be brought totally on board.”

Flynn believes the new administration will be able to rescue the vaccination rollout.

“I’m reasonably confident that we’ll muddle our way through and get there,” Flynn says. “It won’t be pretty. But this is clearly the priority of the incoming administration to address this pandemic as well as the economic consequences it has had. I’m hopeful after Jan. 20 that we will be heading toward a much better place.”

For media inquiries, please contact Marirose Sartoretto at m.sartoretto@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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