It’s the biggest vaccination campaign in history. The entire world is trying to purchase and rollout vaccines against COVID-19 to finally get some semblance of normal into our lives. But while several vaccines have already been developed in record time, producing enough doses and distributing them through the world is an entirely different beast altogether.
The US is among the frontrunners in vaccination rollout. At the time of this writing, there have been almost 29 million people who’ve received at least one dose of the vaccine (most require two doses). But this figure will undoubtedly grow day by day, as you can see below.
The vaccines came at a dark time when cases were surging — and people were reminded that just because there is a vaccine it doesn’t mean the disease just goes away. Actually vaccinating enough people to achieve some level of herd immunity (and doing so before new variants that can elude the vaccine emerge) is a different challenge.
The US vaccine rollout got off to a rocky start, struggling with uneven distribution between states. This is still the case. While all states have started vaccination, some have moved more quickly than others. In Alaska, West Virginia, and North Dakota, over 16 in 100 people have received at least one dose, while multiple other states haven’t yet reached the 10% figure.
States are also exhibiting differences in how they’re administering the vaccines they’ve received. So far, States like West Virginia, North Dakota, and New Mexico have administered over 80% of the doses they have available, while on the other side, Mississippi, Alabama, and Massachusetts have barely administered more than half of the vaccines they have on hand. So far, the federal government has delivered almost 60 million doses.
Unsurprisingly, the states with the most vaccinations are the most populous states — but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing fine on a per capita basis.
How the US is doing per capita
President Biden has promised to administer 100 million vaccines by his 100th day in office — and he’s on track for that. The country is administering about 1.4 million doses per day, and projections show 1.5 million shots a day could soon be reached.
But this could be a little bit confusing because it doesn’t mean that 1.4 million people are getting immunized every day. The only vaccine to require a single jab is the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — and that hasn’t even been approved yet (at the time of this writing). The others require two jabs. So as a basic approximation, it would mean that half of that (0.7 million people) are being immunized each day.
Nationally, almost 10% of Americans have received at least one dose. Since vaccinations started on January 12, the federal government has encouraged states to immunize all residents aged 65 and older, as well as those aged 16 and older suffering from certain medical conditions and healthcare workers. In total, this opened vaccination to a third of the population. However, experts have cautioned that clearer criteria for distribution need to be laid out nationally.
“A massive vaccination campaign won’t work with our current fussy and intricate criteria for who gets a shot and when,” Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, wrote. “We learned in 2020 that our health system simply cannot do complicated things.”
We don’t yet know just how many people should be vaccinated before reaching herd immunity, but estimates range between 69% and 80%. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious expert in the U.S., has said that vaccinating 70% to 85% of the U.S. population would enable a return to normalcy. It’s a daunting task, but since we still don’t know for sure just how long immunity lasts, it would be best if we reach that figure before the first people who got vaccinated lose their immunity. If the US is immunizing 0.7 million people every day, it translates to 0.2% of the population.
How the US compares to other countries
The US is definitely in the leaders’ pack, but on a per capita basis, it’s still lagging behind a few countries, especially Israel, which has proven the clear leader of the world’s vaccination efforts.
It’s hard to draw a hard line and say whether the US is doing a “good job” or not. There are reasons for optimism, but also clear warnings about what need to be improved. For instance, many fear that the vaccination will continue to widen social and racial gaps already existing within US society.
“The District of Columbia has addressed some of these issues by prioritizing vaccine signups by the rate of Covid-19 infections in particular zip codes. Thus, the hardest-hit zip codes, which also tend to have a greater proportion of people of color and front-line workers, are offered vaccines before the wealthier, whiter zip codes where Covid-19 cases are lower,” writes Elaine Kamarck for The Brookings Institution.
Meanwhile, in other countries where vaccination rollout is still lagging, there’s constantly a risk that new variants can emerge — variants that could be more dangerous or more resistant to existing vaccines. This could send us in a whack-a-mole loop with the COVID-19 vaccine, kind of like what we’re doing with the flu vaccine, which is being updated every year for new variants. Simply put, if the rich countries get vaccines and the poor ones don’t, it’s a risk to everyone in the world.
The vaccines won’t save us overnight. As many have speculated since the early days of the pandemic, we may never be truly rid of COVID-19, we’ll just work to keep it under control best we can. Yes, you will still need to wear a mask after the vaccine. No, everything won’t open overnight. It’s a marathon.