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New CDC director: COVID-19 vaccine for general population not likely by March

Trump's health secretary speculated on TODAY in December that the vaccine could be as widely available as the flu shot by late February.
/ Source: TODAY

With the first full day of President Joe Biden's administration underway, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, is sharing what she believes is a realistic timeline for overcoming the many challenges of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout thus far.

On Thursday morning, Walensky and TODAY co-anchor Savannah Guthrie dove into the administration's plan to have 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered within the first 100 days of Biden taking office.

"We recognize this as the most immediate emergency to get this country back to health," Walensky said. She added that yesterday marked one year since the first COVID-19 case in the U.S. and that if the the country continues with its current pace of new cases, there will be 100,000 more deaths by the middle to end of February.

Addressing the challenges of vaccine distribution, which range from vaccine hesitancy among the population to shortages of doses in states like New York, she explained that the priority is matching "the amount of vaccine that we have for the amount of people who are eligible so we don't have vaccine on the shelves and ... don't see the footage of these long lines."

"We really need to ... expand our (vaccine) eligibility so it fits with the vaccine supply," she added.

She also hopes the new administration can rally more vaccinators to help get more shots in more people's arms. "We need to make sure ... that we have commissioned health corps, medical military, retirees, medical students and nursing students just about to graduate, dentists and veterinarians in order to be out there to vaccinate the public," Walensky explained.

Asked by Savannah about where the issues with the vaccine supply chain exist, she said that the administration is working closely with the head of Operation Warp Speed, Gen. Gustave Perna, as well as vaccine manufacturers and state officials. She said they're seeking to answer questions like, "Do we need syringes or do we need chemical products?" but at this stage, distributing vaccines currently sitting on shelves is a higher priority.

"We're looking at community vaccination centers, stadiums and gymnasiums," Walensky said. "We're looking at mobile units to really get to every corner of this country, federally qualified health care centers and pharmacies."

She called it a "diverse" rollout plan "so we can get to all people," and also stressed the importance of understanding vaccine hesitancy.

"Vaccine hesitancy comes in numerous different flavors, I will say," Walensky continued. "Some people just really need it to be convenient. Some people need to have permission to take the time to get the vaccine or enough leeway to be able to take the day off if they're feeling unwell the next day. Some of it is they just want to see how it's going to go. Some of it is education ... and we need to bring that science to them by their trusted people."

Last, Walensky addressed a comment made by the Trump administration's Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who told Savannah in December that he thought the COVID-19 vaccine could be as widely available to the general population as the flu shot by late February or early March.

"I don't think late February we're going to have vaccine in every pharmacy in this country," Walensky said. "We said 100 million doses in the first 100 days, and we're going to stick to that plan, but also want to be very cognizant of the fact that after 100 days, there are still a lot of Americans who need vaccine, so we have our pedal to the metal to make sure we can get as much vaccine out there."

She added that a third drug maker, Johnson & Johnson, whose COVID-19 vaccine only requires one shot as opposed to Moderna's and Pfizer's two doses, could soon be on the path to seeking authorization from the Food & Drug Administration.