A Rapid COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Backfired in Some U.S. States

(AP) -
Vehicles snake through a line beside a farm field in Poplar Bluff, Mo., for the state’s first mass COVID-19 vaccination event. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, File)

Despite the clamor to speed up the U.S. vaccination drive against COVID-19 and get the country back to normal, the first three months of the rollout suggest faster is not necessarily better.

A surprising new analysis found that states such as South Carolina and Florida that raced ahead of others to offer the vaccine to ever-larger groups of people have vaccinated smaller shares of their population than those that moved more slowly and methodically, such as Hawaii and Connecticut.

The explanation, as experts see it, is that the rapid expansion of eligibility caused a surge in demand too big for some states to handle and led to serious disarray. Vaccine supplies proved insufficient or unpredictable, websites crashed and phone lines became jammed, spreading confusion, frustration and resignation among many people.

“The infrastructure just wasn’t ready. It kind of backfired,” said Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, an infectious disease physician and health data specialist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. She added: “In the rush to satisfy everyone, governors satisfied few and frustrated many.”

The findings could contain an important go-slow lesson for the nation’s governors, many of whom have announced dramatic expansions in their rollouts over the past few days after being challenged by President Joe Biden to make all adults eligible for vaccination by May 1.

“If you’re more targeted and more focused, you can do a better job,” said Sema Sgaier, executive director of Surgo Ventures, a nonprofit health-data organization that conducted the analysis in collaboration with The Associated Press. “You can open it up — if you have set up the infrastructure to vaccinate all those people fast.”

Numerous factors stymied state vaccination performance. Conspiracy theories, poor communication and undependable shipments slowed efforts after the first vials of precious vaccine arrived Dec. 14.

But the size of the eligible population was always within the control of state officials, who made widely varying decisions about how many people they invited to get in line when there wasn’t enough vaccine to go around.

When the drive began, most states put health care workers and nursing home residents at the front of the line. In doing so, states were abiding by national recommendations from experts who also suggested doing everything possible to reach everyone in those two groups before moving on to the next categories.

But faced with political pressure and a clamor from the public, governors rushed ahead. Both the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden team urged opening vaccinations to older Americans.

By late January, more than half the states had opened up to older adults — some 75 and above, others 65 and up. That’s when the real problems started.

In Missouri, where more than half of adults were eligible for shots, big-city shortages sent vaccine seekers driving hundreds of miles to rural towns. Dr. Elizabeth Bergamini, a pediatrician in suburban St. Louis, drove about 30 people to often out-of-the way vaccination events after the state opened eligibility to those 65 and older Jan. 18 and then expanded further.

“We went from needing to vaccinate several hundred thousand people in the St. Louis area to an additional half-million people, but we still hadn’t vaccinated that first group, so it has been this mad dash,” Bergamini said. “It has just been a whole hot mess.”

“It got a little chaotic,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “We created far more demand than there was supply. That stressed the system and that may have left the system less efficient.”

Plescia said the analysis suggests that “a more methodical, measured, judicious, priority-based approach — despite people’s perception — actually can be as efficient, or more efficient, than opening things up and making it available to more people.”

In retrospect, health workers and nursing home residents were the easy groups to vaccinate. Doses could be delivered to them where they lived and worked.

“We knew where they were and we knew who they were,” Wurtz said. As soon as states went beyond those populations, it got harder to find the right people. Nursing home residents live in nursing homes. People 65 and older live everywhere.

Seven states in the bottom 10 for overall vaccination performance — Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Missouri — had larger-than-average shares of their residents eligible for shots.

Among high-performing states, five in the top 10 for high vaccination rates — New Mexico, North Dakota, Connecticut, Wyoming and Hawaii — stuck with more restrictive eligibility. Another two high-performing states from the top 10 — South Dakota and Massachusetts — were about average in how many residents were eligible for vaccine.

“This is a thorough analysis showing a clear association between breadth of eligibility and vaccination rates across states,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration who was not involved in the new analysis but reviewed it for AP.

The better-performing states could be getting results by paying closer attention to vaccine supply, thoroughly vaccinating high-risk groups and then opening to additional categories more slowly as they wait for supplies to build, McClellan said.

What happens next will depend on how much states can improve their vaccine delivery systems and whether Americans remain eager for vaccination, even as the threat eases with more people protected and case numbers dropping.

“Have states used this time wisely and fruitfully to lay down the infrastructure needed to open it up to more people?” Sgaier asked.