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Five simple truths to keep in mind about the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines

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Last summer, the idea of a COVID-19 vaccine still seemed as if it might be a fanciful idea that could be years away. Now just six or so months later (and less than 60 days after the first vaccine received approval for emergency use [2] from the Food and Drug Administration), not only do we have multiple vaccines being deployed, but nearly one in 10 Americans [3] has already received at least one vaccine shot.

This is, by any estimation, a tremendous and enormously important accomplishment, and a great testament to the hope that science offers for addressing many of the dire problems that confront our fragile planet.

But of course, as the widespread frustration, complaints and even unrest we’ve seen around the country in recent weeks makes clear, it’s also not nearly enough. While most Americans are understandably thankful and excited about the prospect that widespread vaccine deployment offers for bringing the coronavirus pandemic under control, people are also tired of waiting and angry that the vaccine rollout has been so flawed and confusing.

This sense of frustration is only magnified by the grim news of mounting infections, hospitalizations and deaths that we confront each day.

So what do we do? How do we cope – both individually and collectively — with the difficult times that must be traversed before society arrives at that point at which life can return to something akin to “normal”?

While there are no magic solutions to these questions, we would do well to keep the following simple truths in mind:

1. Getting all Americans vaccinated is a massive and unprecedented undertaking. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the magnitude of the vaccination challenge we confront. The population of the United States now stands at nearly 330 million. If most vaccines require two doses to become effective, that means we must produce, distribute and deliver on the order of at least a half-billion vaccine doses (and that’s just for our country – a nation that represents about 4% of the world’s population). Humans have never done this before.

2. The Biden administration has taken several important strides to get the U.S. moving in the right direction. It’s important to remember just how distracted and dysfunctional the Trump administration had become during its final months in office – a time during which a responsible president would have spent every waking hour on fashioning a coherent national vaccination plan. Indeed, it remains a monumental scandal that the incoming Biden administration was forced to take such action on its own and without real cooperation from the Trump people. Thankfully, however, we now have a coherent national plan [4] in place that is being implemented by dedicated and trained public health experts.

3. Public health infrastructure matters. If there’s been a most maddening and unhelpful development in North Carolina and across the nation in recent weeks, it might just be the spectacle of conservative politicians and their talking head enablers griping about the vaccine rollout. These are, after all, the people responsible in recent years for slashing public health funding [5] and causing the demise of numerous cogs in the state’s rural health infrastructure by refusing to expand Medicaid.

4. The big problem now is inadequate supply. While people across the country – including here in North Carolina – are right to grumble at some of the snafus that have plagued state and local rollouts, the hard truth is that the impacts have been minimal. Yes, thousands of North Carolinians have encountered delays, cancellations and confusion as the state has figured out the best and fairest ways to distribute vaccines, but that’s thousands on a waiting list of 9 million [6].

Ultimately, the real solution will come in the form of a massive national production boost that will make the vaccine so plentiful that every health care provider and pharmacy will have easy access. Until such a time, state officials (who have done a great job of quickly learning from mistakes and made real and impressive headway in North Carolina in getting shots into people’s arms [7]) can make only incremental tweaks and are largely operating on the margins.

5. Huge challenges remain. Even when, as it surely will, the Biden team swiftly ramps ups vaccine supplies and deployment, we won’t be out of the woods. Millions of Americans – some owing to absurd conspiracy theories [8], others to understandable (if now misguided) concerns about racially-charged past abuses, and still others worried about the nation’s troubling and counter-productive treatment of immigrants – remain vaccine-skeptical or vaccine-hesitant.

Now, add to this difficult stew the new virus variants [9] spreading rapidly across the globe (and, of course, the fact that no vaccine is yet 100% effective) and it’s clear that much hard work and many unforeseen challenges remain.

The bottom line: Now is the time for all North Carolinians to practice what might be termed “impatient patience.” We have the leaders to get the job done and they’re on the right track in deploying COVID-19 vaccines. If we act as both demanding consumers and informed and engaged citizens who are realistic and willing to sacrifice, we might just help them get across the finish line.