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Mariel Garza is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times.
At a virtual press conference on Jan. 12, Operation Warp Speed officials made an announcement that cheered U.S. governors.
The federal government had been holding back millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses to ensure sufficient second doses for the people inoculated in the initial rollout. Now, officials said, the entire reserve would be released to states so it could be put to lifesaving use as soon as possible during the worst surge of the pandemic yet.
“Because we now have a consistent pace of production, we can now ship all of the doses that had been held in physical reserve,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.
To make sure this vaccine windfall would not go to waste, he urged states to expand eligibility for the vaccine to people over 65 and those of any age with a condition that makes them vulnerable to a COVID-19 infection.
It was good news, even if the announcement seemed to be prompted by a similar one made by President-elect Joe Biden’s team days earlier. But, as it turns out, it was too good to be true.
State officials justifiably expected this announcement would presage a larger shipment of COVID-19 doses, at least in the short term. But they were soon to be disappointed.
“Last night, I received disturbing news, confirmed to me directly by General Perna of Operation Warp Speed: States will not be receiving increased shipments of vaccines from the national stockpile next week, because there is no federal reserve of doses,” Oregon’s Gov. Kate Brown tweeted Friday morning.
As The Washington Post reported Friday, there is simply no storehouse of vaccines to release. And Warp Speed officials knew that last Tuesday.
What they apparently meant was that the federal government wouldn’t hold back any future doses, a move made possible because vaccination production had become reliable.
But that was not at all clear from the press conference, or from what state officials were apparently told. “Governors were told repeatedly by @HHSgov there was a strategic reserve of vaccines, and this week, the American people were told it’d be released to increase supply of vaccine,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted on Friday.
In response to the Warp Speed announcement, states such as Oregon and California expanded eligibility to people over 65, as Azar suggested. Word went out quickly and doctor’s offices and clinics were flooded with calls from people seeking appointments to receive shots that don’t exist.
And who will take the blame for the federal government’s broken promise? It probably won’t be the soon-to-be-departed Operation Warp Speed team or the Trump White House, which once again has left the states twisting in the wind on the COVID-19 pandemic.