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With Limited Supply, Who Gets The Vaccine First?


Getting the first vaccines to distribution sites is just the start of a massive undertaking, trying to get millions of shots into people's arms as quickly as possible. The first batch is limited, and there are not enough doses for everybody who has been designated most in need. So the big question is still, who gets them first? Joining us now to talk about that is NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Allison, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi, there. Good to be here.

MARTIN: Now, you've been talking to hospitals that will start getting shipments of the Pfizer vaccine tomorrow. Can you just tell us some of the details?

AUBREY: Sure. The leaders of Operation Warp Speed say about 145 health care sites will receive a vaccine shipment tomorrow. Another 425 will receive shipment Tuesday. In some areas, these vaccines will go simultaneously to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. And as you mentioned, I've spoken to physicians in charge of coordinating distribution at several large hospital systems around the country. They have been planning for this moment. Here is Dr. Mark Newman. He is overseeing the process at the University of Kentucky HealthCare System, which has thousands of employees.

MARK NEWMAN: We have our plan in place. And we were ready in - ahead of time. We got additional minus 80 freezers so we could - we can handle up to 100,000 doses. So we expect, in the next few days, to be able to start vaccinating our employees.

AUBREY: And this is what I'm hearing from other large hospital systems, as well, Michel. Now, Newman says about 50% of employees there say they absolutely want the vaccine as soon as possible. About 30% want a little bit more data but are interested in getting the shot.

MARTIN: Well, last time I checked, there won't be enough doses for everybody in the high-priority groups at first. I know that's health care workers and people in nursing homes. So what's the timeline for when those people will get it?

AUBREY: Yeah, you're absolutely right. I mean, to begin, supplies are going to be very tight. For instance, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, they have tens of thousands of employees but will receive, in their first shipment tomorrow, about 975 doses. I spoke to Dr. Gabe Kelen at Hopkins, who directs the Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response there. He says, look; in addition to the nurses and the doctors, there are lots of other high-priority workers.

GABE KELEN: People that are very essential to keeping the enterprise going - so there are pharmacists and social workers who interact directly with patients. There are people who bring food to patients...

AUBREY: People who clean the rooms, respiratory therapists - I mean, the list just goes on. And since there's not enough for everyone to start, they've created tiers, and they are randomizing the process within the tiers using a lottery system within that tier to determine who goes first.

MARTIN: Wow. So very limited doses to begin - but when can we expect to see supplies increase, not just of the Pfizer vaccine, but others, too?

AUBREY: The head of Operation Warp Speed said today that the U.S. may be able to vaccinate up to 100 million people by the end of the first quarter of 2021. So that's March. And it seems the supply of vaccines will ramp up quickly. Federal officials announced the purchase of about 100 million more doses of the Moderna vaccine. That company has already applied for emergency use authorization. And an advisory committee meeting is set for later this week at the FDA, so it could be approved very quickly. And officials are now saying, Michel, the U.S. could have enough supply to vaccinate all Americans who want it by midyear, so perhaps June.

MARTIN: Wow. So what's the message until then? What? Stay vigilant. Stick with the physical distancing. Is that what public health officials are telling us we have to do?

AUBREY: Absolutely. I mean, the virus is circulating so widely. The U.S. is averaging more than 200,000 new cases a day. There are now 2,000 to 3,000 deaths per day. So as wonderful as this vaccine news is, it is not going to stop the current surge. And even with the vaccine, experts do not know if people who get vaccinated could still spread the virus if they're exposed, even if they don't get symptoms and they have immunity. So it's - you know, we're going to continue to hear this message from all public health experts. It's critical for everyone to do their part - masking, socially distancing, staying home when possible.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Allison Aubrey.

Allison, thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.