Donald Trump’s administration overpromised on coronavirus vaccines. In November, his secretary of health and human services said there would be 40 million doses available by the end of the 2020; he was off by about a month. Trump himself promised 100 million doses in that same period. Everything he and his team said was a sales pitch, designed to foster the false impression that the pandemic they let burn out of control was on the cusp of ending.
There’s a growing consensus that Joe Biden’s administration has done the exact opposite. “Biden’s early approach to virus: Underpromise, overdeliver,” says an Associated Press headline. In December, when Biden pledged 100 million vaccine shots in 100 days, some experts thought it was a reach. But now that the United States is already vaccinating a bit more than a million people a day, that figure is far too modest.
Biden seemed to acknowledge that on Monday, telling reporters that the United States could get to 150 million shots in 100 days. Even that, however, is not enough.
The pandemic has put members of the privileged pundit class in an unaccustomed position. I’m used to thinking about politics in terms of what the government should be doing for other people. Now, like millions and millions of others, I watch the administration with a frantic eye to my own family’s survival. (I used to think of myself as a moderately savvy person, but I’ve yet to figure out how to get vaccine appointments for my parents.) And so I track bits of data on things that previously meant nothing to me — like the production of low dead space syringes — with the terrified desperation of someone googling symptoms while awaiting biopsy results.
In my voracious consumption of vaccine news, I’d been baffled as to why the United States was aiming so low. Pfizer and Moderna, makers of the two vaccines that have been authorized for emergency use, have promised 200 million doses, enough for 100 million people, by the end of March. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told me he’s in touch with people at both companies, and they’ve said they’ll be able to deliver.
“We’re probably on track for about two million doses a day, in terms of production,” he said, and we should, in turn, “absolutely” be able to get two million doses a day into people’s arms. If that’s true, anything less would be deeply disappointing.
It’s understandable that, less than a week in, the new administration doesn’t want to set outsize expectations, especially when the Trump administration left so much confusion in its wake.
“I can’t tell you how much vaccine we have, and if I can’t tell it to you then I can’t tell it to the governors and I can’t tell it to the state health officials,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Fox News on Sunday. Before the administration can fix all the bottlenecks in the system, it needs time to figure out where they are.
But it still needs more ambitious goals. Because the original 100 million figure included people getting their second shots, the Biden administration’s promise meant that only about 67 million people would be fully vaccinated by the end of April. Especially with more infectious new variants spreading, that’s a figure to inspire despair, not hope. “We need the administration to do better than that,” said Jha.
Underpromising, like overpromising, can breed cynicism, making people feel deceived. Conservatives are likely to be critical of the Biden administration’s rollout no matter what. (“Biden’s dishonest coronavirus expectation-setting,” said a Washington Examiner headline.) But even if you badly want this administration to succeed, it’s frustrating to have to read between the lines of public statements to get some idea of when American life might once again become minimally tolerable.
“My guess is that now that they’re in office, and now that they’re getting their arms around these questions of how much supply do we have, where are the real backlogs in distribution, my guess is they’re going to come out with better projections on what they’re going to be able to do,” Jha said just before Biden came out with his new estimate.
No one who cares about public health wants a return to an administration that relies on the power of positive thinking. But we do need the administration to show that it’s being as bold as this terrifying, miserable moment demands.
“It’s critical for just keeping people’s spirits up,” said Jha. “Otherwise I think there’s going to be a lot of despondency” about when life will start to get even a little bit better. The administration might not be able to tell us when, exactly, it can get to two million vaccinations a day. But it should display as much furious urgency in striving toward that goal as people like me feel waiting for it.