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U.S. Surgeon General: 'We Are Absolutely Ready' To Distribute COVID-19 Vaccine

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams demonstrates how to use a COVID-19 self-test kit during a press conference in Atlanta in August.
Elijah Nouvelage
Getty Images
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams demonstrates how to use a COVID-19 self-test kit during a press conference in Atlanta in August.

The U.S. surgeon general says the country is ready to spring into action as soon as a coronavirus vaccine is approved for use — despite earlier failures in the federal government's handling of the pandemic.

Jerome Adams says he's been in touch with production facilities and health departments across the country about what he calls "the most challenging vaccine distribution in history."

And while Adams says there is still work to do at the local level, especially in convincing disproportionately affected communities of color to trust the vaccine, "we are absolutely ready to start shipping out vaccines," he tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have been submitted to the Federal Drug Administration for emergency use authorization, and approval is expected within weeks.

Adams tells Kelly she is "right to press" him on why he thinks the vaccine rollout will be successful, given missteps in the federal response earlier in the pandemic.

In excerpts from his interview on All Things Considered, Adams explains why he thinks the vaccine distribution process will go well and whether stronger measures are needed given the post-Thanksgiving surge in cases.

America has stumbled at so many points during this pandemic. We were late to recognize the threat. We were late to tell people to wear masks. We had huge shortages of PPE. Why should Americans be confident that on the vaccine front we're going to get this right?

What I will say is this is not going to be all about the federal government. We need state and local governments. We need private corporations, and we need individuals to do their part.

You are, in part responsible, for the federal piece of this. So why should we be confident it's going to go fine?

We have the best people who work on logistics in the world ready to deploy this to states. But again, you bring up a very important point. There are multiple steps along the pathway. There will be hiccups in the road. We will be assessing this along the way.

But as of right now, I feel confident that when we have the [emergency use authorization] approved for a vaccine, we will get these vaccines out into the states very quickly and then we need to make sure the process works from there.

Holidays are just around the corner. You saw how many Americans ignored warnings about gathering for Thanksgiving. You begged people not to travel. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention begged people not to travel. And it may have been fewer than last year, but millions of Americans did travel at Thanksgiving. Is there a case to be made for stronger measures?

There is a case consistently to be made for trying to figure out how we can empower and engage people. And what I say to those people who did travel is you should consider going to get tested. You should try to limit your exposure to people outside of the household. And I will continue to work with governors and with state departments of health to really encourage people to do the right thing. You shouldn't have to be told to do something to protect yourself and your neighbors. You shouldn't have to be mandated to do it.

But if people aren't making good decisions left to their own devices, is just encouraging people to make good decisions enough? Is there a case to be made for lockdown orders?

I'm absolutely supportive of public health officials and doctors working with their communities and taking whatever measures they deem necessary to protect the public's health. Education, cooperation, local engagement and where necessary, targeted closures and mandates, I think, are going to be key to helping us get through this surge.

Do you agree with the assessment from [CDC Director] Robert Redfield that we're heading into the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation?

I absolutely do. And it's challenging because I know Americans have heard this time and time again with the previous surges. The surge this time isn't regional. It's not like we can deploy resources from one place to another. It's really hitting all of our states at the same time. My colleagues who work in hospitals, they're dog tired, they're overwhelmed.

So, to the American people who are listening, please understand it's going to be rough over the next several weeks. But the actions that we take today, tomorrow and in the coming weeks will help us get to a vaccine. And it is critically important that you limit exposure outside your household, that you wear a mask and know that we can get through this. There is a reason for hope if we stick together.

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Maureen Pao is an editor, producer and reporter on NPR's Digital News team. In her current role, she is lead digital editor and producer for All Things Considered. Her primary responsibility is coordinating, producing and editing high-impact online components for complex, multipart show projects and host field reporting.