Access to COVID-19 vaccines

In less than one year from learning of this virus, we now have two approved safe and effective covid-19 vaccines with at least one more on the way. Millions of doses have already been produced. This is a near miracle. Thank you pharmaceutical industry and the governments (and their tax payers) that are paying for it.

Getting the vaccine into our bodies is quite another thing. This has several elements. The first is distributing the vaccines to each state/county and site of vaccinations. The second (or first and a half) is staffing these sites with professions able to administer the shots with the necessary equipment (refrigeration, syringes and needles, etc.). The third is determining who can receive the shot this week and getting them to the right place. The need for these three elements has been known for as long as the need for a vaccine has been known. And officials have known the likely vaccines for at least half a year. But planning for delivering the vaccine to your arm (or the lack of it) has been totally botched.

Focusing on the United States, the federal government promised to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of the year (last week). “Of the more than 12 million doses of vaccines from Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. with BioNTech SE that have been shipped, only 2.8 million have been administered, according to federal figures….  The federal government is sending vaccines to states based on their populations, and it has provided guidelines, but no rules, about how they should be distributed…. On Friday [Jan 1, 2021], Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) criticized the vaccine rollout, saying in a statement that the lack of a comprehensive federal plan to be shared with states “is as incomprehensible as it is inexcusable.”  WSJ: Covid-19-vaccines-slow-rollout-could-portend-more-problems”


Beyond the above fiasco, it is necessary to determine the priority for receiving the shots and communicating that information to you and me.  As we have already seen it will take a while–many months–to vaccinate everyone even without the above mess. So, who should get them the first month and the second month etc.? I discussed this issue last May.

One criterion for establishing inoculation priorities is to allocate the vaccines so as to maximize the lives saved. I suggest that a better criterion is to maximize the life saved. The difference between the number of lives saved and the amount of life saved can be explained with a simple example. If there is only one dose and it is given to an 85 year old woman otherwise in good health, she might live another healthy year. If given to a 40 year old nurse, he might live another 46 healthy years. In both cases only one life has been saved but in the second case much more life has been saved (46 years of life rather than only one). But this potentially understates the case for giving the jab (as the British call it) to the nurse. One nurse that has been immunized against covid-19 can safely treat more patients that have covid-19 thus saving even more lives and more life. An argument in the other direction of inoculating the elderly first is to flatten the curve (i.e., reduce the inflow of covid-19 patients into overflowing hospitals).

In my view there is a strong case for maximizing the life saved rather than the number of lives saved. We older people should not crowed out younger people who as a result of the vaccination might enjoy much longer lives, something we have already enjoyed. The case, in my view, is overwhelming for critical workers (healthcare workers, grocery store workers, delivery people, etc.) of all ages to receive priority. “Many states are following CDC guidelines to start with front-line medical workers and people in long-term care facilities, but not all. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Dec. 23 extended eligibility to people aged 65 and older.  Because each county and hospital in the state implemented its own approach, many people didn’t know whether to call, log on or show up in person to secure a spot.” [Same WSJ article] 

 A single dose of Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines “appears to provide strong protection against the coronavirus…. With supplies of the vaccines limited — and hundreds of millions of people waiting for inoculation — this leaves epidemiologists grappling with a complicated question. Should the nation vaccinate fewer people with the best protection possible, or provide twice the number of people with a single shot, covering more of the population but with slightly weaker protection?”  “Coronavirus-vaccine-single-dose-debate”

But if the government can get itself organized (I know that that asks a lot) the existing and rapidly expanding supply of vaccines can be administered in a relatively modest number of months after which the priority issue vanishes.


Whatever your priority turns out to be, how do you know where and when to show up? Do you need a prescription or approval and if so where do you get it? My insurance company is sending regular updates on what I should do. My Maryland county (Montgomery) website has information on the priority phase they are in (phase 1 at the moment) and that is about all (probably because every dispensary–hospitals, doctor’s offices, CVS–sets its own rules). I plan to contact my Primary Care Physician (PCP) for instructions next month when the situation might be a bit clearer.  What should people without medical insurance or a PCP do?  I have visited Kenya many times with the IMF and suspect that they are doing a better job with this than we are. How and why is this such a mess?