The Corner

Politics & Policy

No, the Biden Team Is Not Starting ‘from Scratch’ on Vaccines

Dr. Michelle Chester from Northwell Health prepares to administer a Pfizer coronavirus disease vaccine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y., December 14, 2020. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

There is a kind of dance that every new presidential administration feels the need to perform in its early days. It generally involves senior officials coming out of a briefing about some significant national problem and expressing shock at just how terrible a screwup their predecessors have left for them. Often it’s about the economy, but sometimes it might involve some other particularly prominent national problem where the new administration needs to lower expectations.

The Biden team has clearly started with such a public-relations strategy in mind around the COVID-19 vaccine-distribution challenge. Here’s a characteristically dramatic CNN story from this morning:

Newly sworn in President Joe Biden and his advisers are inheriting no coronavirus vaccine distribution plan to speak of from the Trump administration, sources tell CNN, posing a significant challenge for the new White House.

The Biden administration has promised to try to turn the Covid-19 pandemic around and drastically speed up the pace of vaccinating Americans against the virus. But in the immediate hours following Biden being sworn into office on Wednesday, sources with direct knowledge of the new administration’s Covid-related work told CNN one of the biggest shocks that the Biden team had to digest during the transition period was what they saw as a complete lack of a vaccine distribution strategy under former President Donald Trump, even weeks after multiple vaccines were approved for use in the United States.

“There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch,” one source said.

Joe Biden certainly is following in the wake of a terribly incompetent president, and he has been left with a lot to clean up. But on this particular front, this familiar spin just won’t cut it.

The Biden team has set as its goal getting 100 million Americans vaccinated in its first 100 days. That of course requires a pace of a million people getting vaccinated each day on average. And what pace were they left by the Trump administration?

There are various ways to track the pace, but they’re all relying on the same underlying state and federal data and so fall into the same general range every day. So let’s look at the Bloomberg vaccine tracker, which is probably the best organized of them. It shows that yesterday, the last day of the Trump administration, more than 1.5 million Americans were vaccinated. The numbers go up and down some each day, but the 7-day average for the last week of the Trump administration was 912,000 people vaccinated per day.

In other words, the Trump team, which actually did have to start from scratch, is leaving the Biden team a system that has basically already reached the pace that Biden has set as a goal.

Now, part of what that means is that the goal is too low. And it certainly is. This is presumably another public-relations tactic, meant to lower expectations and let the new administration achieve a not-so-ambitious target that it describes as very ambitious. It’s also surely true that sustaining this pace over three months will be no simple matter, and neither will achieving the actually ambitious pace we should be aiming for. It’s not as though the Biden team is inheriting a well-oiled machine. They have a lot of work to do, and not just because of mistakes made by the Trump administration but also because of the inherent challenge of the pandemic response, which the entire world is struggling to deal with.

But they are very far from starting from scratch, and they, along with state officials and countless others around the country, have a lot to work with toward doing better. Let’s recognize the silly early-days kabuki for what it is, and get serious about that work.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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