WASHINGTON — The government outlined a sweeping plan Wednesday to make vaccines for COVID-19 available free to all Americans, assuming a safe and effective shot is developed, even as top health officials faced questions about political interference with virus information reaching the public.
In a report to Congress and an accompanying “playbook” for states and localities, federal health agencies and the Defense Department sketched out complex plans for a vaccination campaign to begin gradually in January or even late this year, eventually ramping up to reach any American who wants a shot. The Pentagon would be involved with the distribution of vaccines, but civilian health workers would be the ones giving shots.
The whole enterprise faces remaining skepticism. Only about half of Americans said they’d get vaccinated in an Associated Press-NORC poll taken in May. Since then, questions have only mounted about whether the government is trying to rush treatments and vaccines to help President Donald Trump’s re-election chances.
On Wednesday, the Health and Human Services Department announced that political appointee Michael Caputo would take a leave of absence. The news followed revelations that the senior communications official had tried to gain editorial control over scientific publications on COVID-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he contended were hurting the Trump administration.
The director of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, responding Wednesday before Senate lawmakers, rejected questions over whether the government’s timeline for states to be ready for a vaccine by Nov. 1 was politically motivated.
Redfield told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the “scientific integrity” of his agency’s output “has not been compromised and it will not be compromised under my watch.”
He said he was “deeply saddened” by Caputo’s accusations that CDC staff were working as a “resistance unit” against the administration.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the committee’s top Democrat, said political interference had damaged public trust in the government’s health information .
“The Trump administration needs to leave the science to the scientists immediately,” Murray said.
Although Trump asserted Tuesday that a vaccine could be three to four weeks away, Redfield made clear to Congress that any version available this year would be in “very limited supply.” The shot wouldn’t be broadly available to most of the U.S. population until the summer of 2021, he estimated.
Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, quickly repeated the president’s version at the White House: “We do believe that it will be widely available by the end of the year.”
As for the planned vaccine campaign, the CDC playbook for states says it is “much larger in scope and complexity than seasonal influenza or other previous outbreak-related vaccination responses.” Redfield said that his agency will be working with state health officials to execute the vaccination plan in coming days.
Among the highlights of the plan:
• For most vaccines, people will need two doses, 21 to 28 days apart. Double-dose vaccines will have to come from the same drugmaker. There could be several vaccines from different manufacturers approved and available.
• Vaccination of the U.S. population won’t be a sprint but a marathon. Initially there may be a limited supply of vaccines, and the focus will be on protecting health workers, other essential employees, and people in vulnerable groups. “Early in (the) COVID-19 vaccination program there may be a limited supply of vaccine and vaccine efforts may focus on those critical to the response, providing direct care and maintaining societal functions, as well as those at highest risk for developing severe illness,” Redfield said. A second and third phase would expand vaccination to the entire population.
• The vaccine itself will be free of charge, thanks to billions of dollars in taxpayer funding approved by Congress and allocated by the Trump administration. The goal is that patients won’t be separately charged for administration of their shots, and officials say they are working to ensure that’s the case for all Medicare recipients and uninsured people as well those covered by insurance at their jobs.