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Pressure To Change Vaccine Allocation To Target Areas Seeing COVID-19 Surges

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you look at a heat map for cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., one state stands out - Michigan. It's seeing an alarming spike in cases. And this has led to calls for extra vaccine doses to be pumped into the state. But the Biden administration isn't sold on that idea. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The rise of COVID-19 cases in Michigan has been so sharp, it reminds Detroit's chief public health officer, Denise Fair, of what it was like a year ago.

DENISE FAIR: We are in daily conversation with the state, asking for more vaccine because we know in this city, our percent positivity has skyrocketed.

KEITH: The Biden administration allocates vaccines to states each week based on the number of adults who live there. It's a simple formula aimed at equal distribution, and it is watched closely by governors, including Minnesota's Tim Walz.

TIM WALZ: Any time they announce how many vaccines there are, I do my math. Minnesota gets 1.74% of what that national number is.

KEITH: But last week, on a call with fellow governors and the White House, Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer raised the idea of surging doses into her state. Walz says he's open to the idea, which he and other governors have been texting about.

WALZ: If the science around this says if we can surge more vaccines into an area that's showing, you know, the variants moving of the virus, that would be helpful, we should do it. I think governors are open to hearing that.

ERIC TOPOL: I've been calling for it for a couple of weeks now because you could start to see the uptick in cases.

KEITH: Eric Topol is a professor of molecular medicine at the Scripps Research Center. He says the U.K. variant is driving the case spike in Michigan, and the best defense would be to inundate the state with vaccines.

TOPOL: And just do 24/7 campaigns. You know, drive around, you know, just whatever it takes. And if we do that, we will start to see suppression of the surge.

KEITH: All this prompted Josh Schwab at UC Berkeley to run a couple of scenarios through a forecasting model he works on. He found that if Michigan got a double allocation of vaccines for two weeks, it could prevent 1,200 deaths by July. Even more effective? Coupling a vaccine surge with two weeks of shutting down restaurants and bars for in-person dining. That would save 2,500 lives Schwab says.

JOSHUA SCHWAB: It would be a different situation if we didn't have these vaccines. Then it would be like, well, I don't know. We could, you know, close the restaurants and bars again, but then, like, what's our long-term plan? But, you know, we actually have a long-term plan now. We just have to get through this next short period.

KEITH: But others urge caution.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Mother Nature is going to drive this pretty much. And if we try to respond with vaccine targeted to a given area, it's just another two days before it's in another area.

KEITH: Michael Osterholm is an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota who advised the Biden transition. And he says a lot of humility is needed when it comes to predicting where the virus will go next, where cases will spike or fall.

OSTERHOLM: I can see easily in the next six to eight weeks, we'd have to be, you know, triaging vaccine to all 50 states. At that point, there's no such thing as triage.

KEITH: There's also some value in keeping it consistent. The current system is efficiently getting vaccines into people's arms at a rate of more than 3 million a day, says Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers.

CLAIRE HANNAN: So I think we're doing a good job, and I would not mess with that right now.

KEITH: White House officials aren't putting it that plainly, but when COVID coordinator Andy Slavitt was asked about this, he said they haven't reached a point where any state has enough vaccines for everyone who wants them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDY SLAVITT: By and large, we are still allocating vaccines based upon population until we get to that point. Clearly, we will get to a place where targeted strategies will work.

KEITH: The Biden administration has worked hard to avoid pitting states against each other, scrapping for a finite resource. But they have sent teams to Michigan to help the state make the most of the doses it is getting. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.