COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Tracker: Week of Jan. 25

Editor's note: Below you'll find the week 1 release of the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Tracker, originally published Jan. 26, 2021. Visit the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Tracker homepage for the latest data.

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is underway in the United States. A month and a half after the first vaccine was administered, the country now has 44,394,075 doses of two authorized vaccines distributed across the country. But only slightly more than half of those doses have made it into arms.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna for emergency use in the United States. Each vaccine requires two doses for COVID-19 immunity, spaced 21 days (Pfizer-BioNTech) or 28 days (Moderna) apart.

This discrepancy boils down to challenges in everything from shipping and storage to communication surrounding eligibility requirements. And some states are navigating these pitfalls better than others. Four states—Alaska, West Virginia, South Dakota, and North Dakota—have administered two doses of the vaccine to over 2% of their populations on a per capita level, doubling the national cadence.

Notably, West Virginia has been able to administer its vaccine allocation so efficiently by opting out of a federal program. While the federal government teamed up with CVS and Walgreens to administer vaccines to residents of long-term care facilities (the first candidates in line for a vaccine alongside healthcare workers), West Virginia created a system that worked better for its own independent pharmacies.

According to Gov. Jim Justice, 40% of the state's pharmacies are not chain-affiliated. By creating a partnership using all of the pharmacies in the state, West Virginia was able to distribute first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to all 214 long-term care facilities by the end of December—before some states had even started. 

In Mississippi, a reliance on CVS and Walgreens has drastically hindered vaccination across the state. Plenty of separate issues plague other states lagging behind on vaccine administration, such as software glitches in California and confusion about who is even eligible for vaccination in South Carolina.

States Are Moving Through Eligible Groups at Different Rates

While each state has different rollout procedures dictating pacing, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities be offered COVID-19 vaccines first. In mid-January, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced anyone age 65 or older should also be eligible, along with people under 65 with documented chronic health conditions. The problem? Most states don’t have enough vaccine supply to accommodate this expansion of priority groups.

As of January 26, our estimates show Alaska leads the way with the highest proportion of eligible adults vaccinated at 14.0%, well ahead of runner up North Dakota (9.8%). According to the state’s chief medical officer, Anne Zink, MD, FACEP, part of the reason why is the large number of sovereign tribes, military personnel, and veterans—groups that earn the state more doses in the first place. In addition, COVID-19 cases are declining in Alaska, allowing healthcare personnel to focus on vaccinating rather than caring for active infections. 

Actually having vaccine doses on hand is key to getting eligible populations vaccinated. Ohio, for example, is moving onto phase 1B of distribution and offering vaccines to older residents, but has only vaccinated an estimated 2.8% of eligible adults. In an attempt to work with limited resources, Ohio has created four age brackets within phase 1B, beginning with ages 80 and up as of last week, and descending to ages 65 and up by February 8.

How Are We Pacing as a Country?

While projections for a light at the end of the tunnel come with plenty of caveats—we’ll still need to wear masks and practice social distancing even after we get vaccinated—we can predict how long it will take to vaccinate a meaningful number of people if we continue on at the current rate.

But of course, things won’t continue on at the current rate. On the one hand, we’re navigating new COVID-19 variants that may or may not interfere with vaccine efficacy, and we need to combat vaccine hesitancy that could threaten widespread uptake of the vaccine among the general public.

On the other, more positive, hand, we will only get more vaccines from here. Early data shows the Johnson & Johnson vaccine produces an immune response against COVID-19, and its one-dose regimen would speed the inoculation process. The company could apply for emergency use authorization from the FDA as early as March. 

Still, for a general sense of how we’re doing, we can use data from the past week. At the current rate, the U.S. could get 70% of the population both vaccine doses by August. And some states are on track to hit that threshold even faster.

Why 70%?

While there’s still no clear percentage of the population necessary to reach herd immunity for COVID-19, 70% is a good place to start. Herd immunity refers to the protectiveness achieved when a significant portion of a population develops immunity to an infectious disease, either through vaccination or having a prior illness. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, used to say 60% to 70% of the population needed to be vaccinated or recovered to reach herd immunity, his projection has evolved to range from 70% to 90%.

Herd immunity is a complex calculation that relies on both past infections and number of people vaccinated. Because the World Health Organization emphasizes herd immunity should rely on vaccination and not disease exposure, for the sake of projections, our numbers focus on the time it will take to hit 70% through vaccination alone.

It’s important to remember that vaccination is not a competition among states. Regardless of how well they’re doing now, all states are up against the same challenge: a limited supply of existing vaccines. 

Because President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine plan encourages states to expand priority groups in order to get more people vaccinated, supply will be stretched even thinner. The Biden administration is planning against this, providing funding for bolstered vaccine production to keep up.

Data by Amanda Morelli/Adrian Nesta

By Anisa Arsenault
Anisa joined the company in 2018 after managing news surrounding fertility, pregnancy, and parenting for The Bump. Her health and wellness articles have appeared in outlets like Prevention and Metro US. At Verywell, she is responsible for the news program, which includes coverage of COVID-19.