Former COVID-19 crisis planner: Don’t expect ‘military miracle’ on vaccine distribution

A recently retired military officer who worked as a coronavirus crisis planner says the rollout of a future vaccine will be “one of the most daunting challenges any president has ever faced.”

“The virus is everywhere, and spreading deeply into every corner of the country. This is where the Biden administration will face its biggest challenge, especially as it pertains to rolling out a potential vaccine,” Kris Alexander, a former COVID-19 crisis planner for the military’s Northern Command (Northcom), wrote in a Monday op-ed for the Daily Beast.

Because of the delicate nature of the work-in-progress vaccines — the Pfizer one, for example, requires cold storage of at least minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit — isolated, small town clinics with a lack of such refrigeration “will present a logistical challenge alone that borders on the impossible for rural America,” Alexander writes.

If a federal rollout of vaccines requiring ultra-cold storage is uncoordinated, it could leave state and local governments competing for resources, similar to the battle earlier this year to obtain ventilators and personal protective equipment such as masks.

“Trump has indicated that the military will be the savior here, but the military has its limits,” Alexander says.

The Pentagon has a significant role in Operation Warp Speed, the White House’s far-reaching program to create and distribute 300 million safe and effective doses of the vaccine — one for roughly every American. The goal is to distribute the first doses to health care workers and other higher risk populations beginning in December, though experts say a vaccine will likely not be distributed to the general public until well into 2021.

The public-private effort also includes the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, as well as private health and drug companies.

The Defense Department is also involved in creating and testing the vaccine, and President Trump has repeatedly indicated that the military would distribute doses across the country.

During the Oct. 22 presidential debate, Trump said generals are “lined up” and “ready to go as soon as we have the vaccine, and we expect to have 100 million vials.”

But while Northcom is able to get military medical and logistical resources to hot spots quickly, it is unable to do so for the entire country, Alexander says.

Adding to the herculean task, he writes, is Trump’s firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week and the subsequent, ongoing removal of top officials at the Pentagon, which “could delay and disrupt whatever plans the Department of Defense is developing.”

The military also might not be able to rush a vaccine across the country as rapidly as desired due to the added task of deploying the vaccine to its own troops and their families globally.

Alexander urges coordination between local, state and the federal government to roll out a vaccine rather than rely on a “military miracle.” 

“Our long winter with COVID could turn into a slog through the spring and summer even with an effective vaccine. Pockets of the virus could linger with us for months as we try to reach Americans in every isolated place.”

The coronavirus has killed more than 247,000 people in the U.S. so far, with an average of nearly 160,000 new cases and more than 1,000 deaths per day across the country, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Tags Coronavirus coronavirus vaccine COVID-19 Donald Trump Kris Alexander Mark Esper

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