“The Trump administration never had a federal or comprehensive strategy” for getting coronavirus vaccines into Americans’ arms, Jeff Zients, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to coordinate the federal covid-19 response, told a small group of journalists Saturday. He, along with Biden’s pick for surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, said the Biden administration remains optimistic that it can meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million shots in the first 100 days of his presidency. Given that the Trump administration’s approach to the passage of power means Biden officials will get a complete picture of where the vaccination process stands only on Wednesday, the task may be daunting.

Zients pulled no punches in characterizing the challenge. “Uneven at best” was how he described the administration’s effort, which largely consisted of dropping everything in state officials’ laps. “We’re struck by the incompetence across the board,” he underscored. “Worse than we could have imagined,” he repeated.

The incoming administration’s goal isn’t complicated: To get more people vaccinated, Biden will invoke the Defense Production Act to create more supply, set up more places to do the vaccinations and hire more personnel to administer the shots.

Murthy also stressed that even as the pace of vaccinations ramps up, testing remains critical. That is how schools will reopen safely and how businesses can reopen. (The administration, he noted, will initially focus on keeping schools open for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.) Testing is also essential to protect incarcerated populations and nursing home residents. Moreover, Murthy said we are doing a poor job tracing the genetic variations in the virus, badly lagging countries such as Britain. Some of the newer variants are more communicable, underscoring the need to continue precautions such as mask-wearing, distancing and hand-washing.

Both Zients and Murthy stressed that they are looking to build a true partnership between the federal government and the states. Zients noted that there is considerable “variability across states” in how well they have carried out vaccination efforts thus far, but offered that each state is “getting better.” Some will just need greater supplies of the vaccine while others will need a “turnkey operation” — that is a vaccination program essentially run by the federal government. What officials everywhere have in common is a desire for better information, more advance notice about what vaccine supplies are available and more coordination with the federal government. They plainly have not gotten those things, yet another indication that after announcing the vaccine breakthroughs and getting vials of vaccines to the states, the Trump administration did not do much at all.

I asked Murthy about the current system that prioritizes groups of people and sets an order for reaching the entire population. He described it as “too rigid.” He pointed to Biden’s desire to get to the over-65-year-old population quickly. He indicated that they want the states to move through the groups prioritized for the vaccine, among them health-care workers, “as fast as possible,” though he acknowledged that moving from one prioritized group to the next does not mean that everyone at the highest risk has received their doses. (The new administration plans to continue with “multiple modalities” — among them community health clinics and mobile units — to try to find hard-to-reach populations.) The administration wants as much vaccine out the door as possible with only a “small reserve,” Zients said, while adhering to the schedule for second shots.

There is much the incoming administration still does not know and cannot predict. For instance, it cannot estimate when all 65-year-olds will be vaccinated, much less when we all will be. One does have the sense that administration officials are about to enter a black box, uncertain what they will find and bracing themselves for the possibility that the cupboards will turn out to be bare. Despite the national scope of the pandemic, the Trump administration never considered or was not competent to plan what was involved in getting vaccines the last “quarter mile or mile,” as Zients put it. That’s the stage that actually involves getting the vaccine into people’s arms.

The bad news is that our vaccination process is unwieldy, underfunded, confused and plagued by shortages. The good news is an administration is coming that actually considers it the federal government’s job to address those shortcomings.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.

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