Walz cheers Biden for plan to release reserved COVID vaccines

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said he gave a "big cheer" to President-elect Joe Biden for deciding to release almost all coronavirus vaccine doses to the states.

Biden's move is a major break with the Trump administration, which has been holding back millions of vaccines to ensure second doses are available.

Walz and seven other Democratic governors called for the change in an effort to speed up the troubled COVID-19 vaccine rollout. As of Friday, 110,427 Minnesotans had received a vaccine, or 2 percent of the state's population, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I think (the federal government) set the bar very high and overpromised," Walz told reporters. "And it was more complex than that. They set the bar really high for Americans."

Under the Trump administration's approach, the government has been holding back a supply of vaccines to guarantee that people can get a second shot, which provides maximum protection against COVID-19. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require a second shot about three weeks after the first vaccination. One-shot vaccines are still undergoing testing.

After a glow of hope when the first vaccines were approved last month, the nation's inoculation campaign has gotten off to a slow start. Of 29.4 million doses distributed, about 5.9 million have been administered, or 27%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar prodded states to start offering the vaccine to broader populations. Many states, including Minnesota, have stuck closely to their plan to vaccinate all health care workers and long-term care residents first. In Minnesota, there are roughly 500,000 people in that group.

"It would be much better to move quickly and end up vaccinating some lower priority people than let vaccine sit around as states try to micromanage this process," Azar said in a briefing on Wednesday.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state does not have enough vaccines to inoculate a broader population. 

CDC data showing the state has used just 29 percent of the doses delivered here doesn't account for the reporting that lags by several days from hospitals and pharmacies administering the shots, she said.

"Should we go faster and open it up to everyone under age 65? It’d be great if we had enough vaccine to do that, but with only 65,000 doses a week coming into the state so far, that doesn’t stretch far enough," Malcolm said. "We’d have very long lines and frustrated people if we said, 'Everybody come on in.'"

Minnesota will not start vaccinating the next wave of people -- those 75 and older and front-line essential workers -- until early February, Malcolm said. Other states are already starting that vaccinate that group.

Sending out almost all of the reserved doses runs the risk of not having enough vaccines available to inoculate everyone with their second dose on time.

Walz said he was not concerned with manufacturing capacity.

"We’re basing that on where the manufacturing’s at and how it’s entering the stream that it should be there," he said.

In a speech last week, before his election victory was certified by Congress, Biden said he intends to speed up vaccinations by having the federal government take a stronger role to make sure that vaccines are not only available, but that shots are going into the arms of more Americans.

"The Trump administration plan to distribute vaccines is falling behind—far behind," Biden said. "If it continues to move as it is now, it’s going to take years, not months, to vaccinate the American people."

The American Hospital Association estimates that the nation would need to vaccinate 1.8 million people a day, every day, from Jan. 1 to May 31, to reach the goal of having widespread immunity by the summer. That's also called "herd immunity" and would involve vaccinating at least 75% of the population.

Without spelling out details, Biden said his administration will put in place a much more aggressive vaccination campaign, with greater federal involvement and leadership, and the goal of administering 100 million shots in the first 100 days.

He said he and Vice-president elect Kamala Harris have been talking with state and local leaders about a coordinated approach that meshes the efforts of governments at all levels. Among the specifics: opening up vaccination centers and sending mobile vaccine units to hard-to-reach communities.