By Eliza Collins and Stephanie Armour 

WILMINGTON, Del. -- President-elect Joe Biden outlined his proposal to give the federal government a bigger role in getting Americans vaccinated against Covid-19, including setting up federally supported community centers and mobile clinics for delivering shots.

The plan, which Mr. Biden described in a speech Friday, marks a shift in the coronavirus response that has so far involved the Trump administration purchasing and distributing vaccines, while relying heavily on states to administer the shots.

"This will be one of the most challenging operational efforts ever undertaken by the country. But you have my word. We will manage the hell out of this operation," Mr. Biden said, before adding that he needed funding from Congress to make it happen.

"I'm optimistic, I'm convinced the American people are ready to spare no effort and no expense to get this done," he said.

Mr. Biden said he would expand the use of a Korean War-era national security mobilization law, known as the Defense Production Act, in an effort to increase manufacturing of vaccines and vaccination supplies. He also called for a "federally led, locally focused public education campaign" to encourage Americans to get the vaccine.

If manufacturing projections previously put forth by companies hold up, Mr. Biden's pledge to administer 100 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines during the first 100 days of his presidency should be possible, according to manufacturing and supply chain experts. But efforts to significantly ramp up vaccines and curtail spread of the virus will depend on state partnerships and public buy-in for some public health measures.

Mr. Biden on Thursday proposed a sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, with aid for households making up about half of the plan's cost. He proposed spending $20 billion on a national vaccination program. The plan also calls for sending many Americans $1,400 checks and increasing the child tax credit, among other things.

Getting a plan into motion will take time, health analysts said, with urgency mounting because a more transmissible variant of the virus has been found in multiple states.

"We remain in a very dark winter," said Mr. Biden. He and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris had just been briefed on the pandemic.

While Democrats praised Mr. Biden's relief efforts, Republicans criticized the scope of the $1.9 trillion proposal, saying some provisions were unnecessary. Democrats have narrow majorities in the House and Senate. They would need Republican votes in the Senate to pass most legislation due to rules in that chamber.

"A few of the line items in this proposal seem like they could undermine the bill's own good intentions," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. "I'm open to more relief in light of this crisis, but I'll need to more closely review the proposal and perhaps even see changes."

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R., La.), a member of the bipartisan group that helped kick-start negotiations on a $900 billion relief bill that lawmakers passed last month, said Mr. Biden's proposal seemed premature.

"We just put out $900 billion and it's not even out there yet," Mr. Cassidy said. "We really have to see how the epidemic goes, how the vaccination goes, how the economy recovers and what is the impact of the $900 billion."

Senate Democrats could pass some of Mr. Biden's proposed policies through a process called reconciliation, which allows a simple majority to pass certain legislation. However, that path comes with restrictions, including a limited number of times it can be used and rules that confine reconciliation bills to tax and fiscal matters, rather than broader policies.

Some Democrats have said they were considering quickly passing items with some bipartisan support, such as a round of $1,400 checks for many Americans, and trying to use reconciliation for ideas that won't get Republican support.

Mr. Biden said he intends to introduce a second proposal focused on recovery next month.

Many states have struggled to increase the administration of the vaccine, citing inconsistent information on arriving doses from the federal government, and health departments already stretched thin financially by the coronavirus pandemic. Congress on Dec. 21 approved $8.4 billion to help states with their efforts, but by then the vaccination rollout was already under way, and some states say it will take weeks to hire enough staff for more extensive vaccination campaigns.

The Trump administration this week said it would stop holding back second doses, reversing the strategy since the rollout began last month. That guidance came several days after Mr. Biden's transition team said the incoming administration would release all the available supply.

Pfizer Inc. was asked by the U.S. government "only recently" to start shipping second doses and still has millions of doses ready to distribute at the government's signal, a Pfizer spokeswoman said.

She said the company has shipped more than 15 million doses for first and second injections and is confident in delivering on future commitments.

Moderna Inc., which makes the other vaccine authorized in the U.S. so far, doesn't have insight into how the government is releasing its doses, said a company spokesman. Moderna remains on track to meet its goal of providing about 100 million doses in the U.S. by the end of March, and an additional 100 million by the end of June, the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the Democratic governors of several states, including New York, Colorado and Oregon, said Friday they were running out of vaccine supply and criticized the Trump administration.

The federal government this week suggested states make the vaccines available to people ages 65 and older, as well as those with pre-existing health conditions. That rapid expansion created massive demand, which was supposed to be met in part with increased allocation of the vaccine from a reserve of second doses held by the government.

Now, the governors said, there wasn't that ready supply from the reserve and the amount of vaccines flowing from the federal government will actually decline next week.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday said the increase in demand and decrease in supply was a problem created by the federal government. "The theory was, 'We'll increase the eligibility but we'll increase the allocation.' That hasn't happened," he said.

"This week, nearly 13 million total doses have been provided to states to order for first and second doses, millions more than other weeks, as second doses in reserve are fully made available to order against," a spokesman for Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration's vaccine effort, said Friday. "States have yet at this time to fully order against their ordering caps."

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar rejected the criticism by governors Friday. "If one doesn't want to listen when we have our press conference, when we sit and spend an hour and a half with the nation's governors, with the vice president walking through the data, talking about the available supplies, that's just willfulness and wanting to score a political point," he said on NBC.

The success of the vaccination push rests in part on available supplies and the ability of a workforce to provide shots. Mr. Biden's plan seeks to address both challenges through the expanded use of the Defense Production Act and a call for letting more people, including retired medical professionals, administer vaccines with training. He would also expand the use of pharmacies to provide vaccines.

The federally backed community vaccination centers would involve the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Guard and state and local teams. The administration would use federal resources and its emergency contracting authority to help launch the centers.

Andrew Duehren, Melanie Grayce West and Jared S. Hopkins contributed to this article.

Write to Eliza Collins at eliza.collins@wsj.com. and Stephanie Armour at stephanie.armour@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 15, 2021 21:23 ET (02:23 GMT)

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