Just after getting a Covid-19 vaccination, recipients are monitored for 15 minutes at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in January.

Despite Ramp Up, Vaccine Rollout Remains Patchy

The pace of Covid-19 vaccination continued to accelerate in the U.S. this week, with health care workers now delivering around 1.2 million shots each day. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 21.7 million people in the U.S. have now received at least one dose of the vaccine — some 6 percent of the total U.S. population.

These rates put the government on track to meet the White House’s stated vaccination goals. On Jan. 21, the Biden administration released its national Covid-19 response strategy, which calls for 100 million shots in President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, describing that figure as an “aggressive vaccination target.” But many experts say that the goal, which would leave a large majority of Americans unvaccinated at the end of April, was actually too modest — and that they are hopeful for a swifter pace of vaccination.

“We’re probably on track for about 2 million doses a day, in terms of production,” Brown University public health scholar Ashish Jha told The New York Times this week, arguing that the vaccination pace should match the availability.

On Monday, Biden told reporters that, “with the grace of God” he hoped the country would be able to vaccinate 1.5 million people per day.

While the vaccine rollout is gaining momentum, it remains patchy. CDC data shows that some states, including West Virginia and Connecticut, are already close to getting at least one dose to 10 percent of their populations, but others, such as Alabama and Wisconsin, have lagged. (In Alaska, nearly 12 percent of residents have gotten at least one dose.) And, while many states are not reporting on the racial demographics of vaccine recipients, early data suggests that a disproportionate share of the shots are going to White people.

The rollout has highlighted other ways in which inequities in the United States can shape access to coveted vaccines. This week, a hospital system in Washington state faced backlash after it offered special vaccination signup slots to dozens of people who had donated at least $10,000 to the system. The hospital is not the first to give privileged vaccine access to affluent backers.

Still, the news isn’t all dire. At least some of the populations most vulnerable to Covid-19 have now received extensive vaccination: The CDC reports that more than 2.7 million people in long-term care facilities, which have borne the brunt of pandemic fatalities, have received at least one shot. And as new, more infectious variants of Covid-19 threaten to drive up cases, more research this week suggests that existing vaccines will be effective in generating immunity against them, too.

“Interrupting your doomscrolling with more good news,” the sociologist and pandemic commentator Zeynep Tufekci wrote on Twitter this week. “As most had expected, the vaccines continue to work well against the new variants. Our problem remains producing enough of these amazing vaccines and getting them out there in arm.”

Also in the News:

• On Tuesday, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that schools should reopen, despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. In an editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the CDC researchers examined school data from around the world, including the U.S., Latvia, Spain, and Israel. In all, the data suggests that schools — unlike nursing homes, jails and prisons, and high-density workplaces such as meatpacking plants — have not driven community spread of Covid-19. While some school-related activities — especially athletics — increased the risk of spreading the virus, the data suggests that there are several ways to curb this spread. In particular, the researchers note, schools should make sure that students can maintain social distancing and that they wear masks; increase ventilation in school buildings; expand Covid-19 screening; limit sports; and offer hybrid and remote learning to help lower student density. The researchers also wrote that communities have a role to play in lowering school Covid-19 transmissions — for instance, through restrictions on indoor restaurant dining. The CDC’s recommendations are timely for the Biden administration. Last week, Biden signed an executive order that would provide federal aid to “reopen school doors as quickly as possible.” (NBC News)

• Members of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) are demanding independent testing of their equipment for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, along with a ban on sponsorships from manufacturers and the chemical industry. While PFASs — found in firefighting foam and protective gear — act as flame retardants, their use has been associated with a host of health problems, including cancer. Direct links between PFASs and elevated cancer rates are hard to prove, but studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have shown that firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of developing cancer than the general U.S. population. In 2019, cancer was responsible for 75 percent of active-duty firefighter deaths. While it’s not the traditional way people think of firefighters dying, Jim Burneka, an Ohio firefighter who runs a consulting company focused on reducing cancer risks, told The New York Times, “It’s still the job that kills us. It’s just we die with our boots off.” Due to widespread use in consumer products including food packaging and textiles, PFASs are also found in the bodies of most of the general population. But firefighters, Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, told The Times, “are disproportionately exposed, on top of all that.” (The New York Times)

• The world’s shark and ray populations have fallen so quickly in the last 50 years that a majority of species are on the edge of extinction, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature. Using long-term fishing data and other indicators, an international collaboration of scientists found that three quarters of the 31 species of sharks and rays living in the world’s oceans are now near the point of disappearing. For some, like the dusky shark, population numbers have dropped more than 70 percent since 1970. “I was just shocked,” said Nicholas Dulvy, a conservation biologist at Canada’s Simon Fraser University and a co-leader of the project, who noted that the last decade has been devastating for shark populations. Researchers cited overfishing and new, aggressive bait-line practices as primary reasons for the decline and urged countries around the world to adopt proactive protective measures. Some are already doing so. The government of Mozambique, for instance, just passed new fishing regulations aimed at protecting manta rays and whale sharks. But researchers emphasize that more regulatory reforms are needed to help protect the animals. (Science)

• Infectious disease experts are cautioning that, while the global health community has been focused on the pandemic, there has been an uptick in drug-resistant infections. According to reporting published in The New York Times this week, isolated outbreaks of drug-resistant infections have emerged in Italy, India, Peru, and France, as well as several U.S. states, including Florida, California, and New Jersey. Experts warn that the reuse of protective equipment during the pandemic, intended to help conserve critical resources amid widespread shortages, may have inadvertently helped spread drug-resistant fungi and bacteria. In addition, the diversion of resources to Covid-19 testing has left some nursing homes and other infection-prone facilities less able to screen for other infections. In Los Angeles County, for example, cases of Candida auris, an infectious fungus, had been rare before the pandemic, but have since risen to around 250 active infections. Instances of contained outbreaks of drug-resistant bacteria have also raised concerns. “We have every reason to believe the problem has gotten worse,” infectious disease specialist Susan S. Huang told The Times. (The New York Times)

• And finally: A decision by Chinese officials to clear one of the country’s top scientists of fraud and plagiarism is drawing jeers in academic circles, reports Dennis Normille in Science. Immunologist Cao Xuetao, president of leading research institution Nankai University, came under scrutiny in November 2019 after Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist based in San Francisco, noted what appeared to be doctored images in a 2009 paper Cao coauthored. Other researchers followed with their own accusations, and soon the Chinese immunologist, whose sprawling research program includes additional laboratories and institutes in three different cities, was facing accusations of misconduct involving more than 60 journal articles. But last week, an investigatory panel assembled by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology ruled that there was no evidence of “fraud, plagiarism, or duplication,” but rather that images had been “misused,” reflecting a lack of laboratory oversight. Though Cao faces temporary sanctions, he’s expected to retain his top position at Nankai University. On Twitter, Bik wrote that some of the images might well have been honest mistakes. “But,” she continued, “there are multiple Cao papers where it is very, very unlikely that an ‘accident’ has happened.” (Science)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.