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Fauci admits U.S. off to 'slow start' with vaccinations, says next two weeks key

Long Islanders submitted more than 2,000 questions to Dr. Anthony Fauci. He couldn't answer all of them, but he did answer a number about coronavirus vaccines and what we should expect.  Credit: Newsday studio

The next two weeks could be key in turning around the sluggish rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert, said in an exclusive Newsday Live webinar.

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, discussed COVID-19 vaccine safety, the possible timetable for shots, and when life might get "back to normal" during an interview Monday with Newsday anchor Faith Jessie and editorial board member Randi Marshall. Fauci also answered questions submitted by Newsday readers.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

'A slow start'

The federal government did not hit its goal of vaccinating 20 million people by the end of 2020, as the distribution and administration of doses was plagued with problems and delays.

Fauci admitted to a "slow start" in vaccinations and said "we need to do better at every level," referring to the federal government, as well as states and local municipalities.

More than 17 million doses have been distributed across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but only about 4.8 million people have received their first dose.

In New York, 299,428 people have received the first dose, according to the CDC. Some health care workers started receiving their second dose on Monday.

Launching the vaccine program in the middle of the holiday season added to growing pains associated with the rollout, Fauci said.

"I think we have to be really careful that we don’t jump to a conclusion based on a very short time period," he said. "We should wait until the first and second week in January to see if we can really catch up."

Dr. Aaron Glatt, chair of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital, pointed out that hospitals also are caring for a surge in COVID-19 patients while administering the vaccine and caring for other patients.

"I think hospitals have done an unbelievable job of going zero to 60 in a very short period of time, and getting as many people vaccinated as we possibly can," Glatt said. "That’s a very small piece of the overall puzzle. There needs to be significantly larger numbers of places giving out tremendously larger amounts of vaccine."

'No compromise of safety'

Some people have expressed concerns about the safety of the vaccines because they were developed and received emergency approval less than a year after the novel coronavirus was officially detected in the United States.

The development of previous vaccines took years, and even Fauci — earlier in the pandemic — cautioned Americans to be patient, advising that vaccine development could not be rushed.

Fauci said Monday that people should feel confident in the science behind the vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, both of which received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month.

"The fact is that the speed is related purely to the spectacular advances that have been made in vaccine platform technology," Fauci said. "There is no cutting corners, and there is no compromise of safety, nor is there compromise of scientific integrity."

He pointed out that the vaccines developed by the pharmaceutical companies were tested in clinical trials involving more than 30,000 people each.

Companies hastened the process by manufacturing the vaccines while the trials were continuing instead of waiting until they were over. "So it was a financial risk, not a safety risk," Fauci said.

Dr. Alan Bulbin, director of infectious disease at St. Francis Hospital, The Heart Center, agreed.

"Are you more comfortable with COVID, including the acute and long-term complications?" Bulbin said. "Any risk with the vaccine is far outweighed by the risk of being actively sick with COVID. I want nothing to do with this infection at all."

Fauci said the best way to show skeptics that COVID-19 vaccines are not being pushed through for political purposes is to explain who is approving and studying clinical trial results.

"People who look at the data and determine if it's safe and effective are an independent group," Fauci said, adding that the group is not beholden to the government or pharmaceutical companies.

"What people in Long Island and everywhere need to realize [is] that these decisions are both transparent and independent," he said. "They're not done behind closed doors, and they're not done by people with vested interests."

Open vaccines by April?

Fauci also expressed hope that vaccinations of health care workers and other priority groups would be completed by the end of March or early April, paving the way for the general public to start being inoculated.

Bulbin said a large-scale rollout to all residents by April is doable, but messaging will be key to making the rollout effective.

"The logistics will be important. Questions are going to be asked, including, 'Where do I go? When can I go? How do I sign up?' " Bulbin said. "A lot of these logistical issues have to be clarified."

If people aggressively get vaccinated through the summer, some pandemic restrictions could be lifted, Fauci said. "I would hope that by the time we get to the fall of 2021, late September, October, November," there could be a strong degree of a normal life, he said.

That could include more people eating at restaurants, visiting a theater or attending a sporting event.

Sticking with the science

Fauci was wary of any discussion to delay second doses of the vaccine in order to get more people inoculated with one dose. Several countries in Europe are mulling that strategy.

Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two doses. Pfizer’s is administered 21 days apart, while Moderna's is given 28 days apart.

"That is something that is taking a chance, and we would prefer to make all our decisions on the scientific data we have," Fauci said.