Vice President Pence traveled to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Friday for a briefing, saying America is "in a season of hope" and "help is on the way" with emergency use authorization for the first coronavirus vaccine potentially less than two weeks away.
But what Pence heard from some of the nation's top public health officials was a grim assessment of the current state of the pandemic.
Pence noted new cases had declined somewhat in the upper Midwest states, asking for an update on the surge. Dr. Henry Walke, director of the CDC's division of preparedness and emerging infections, told him the strain on hospitals was still growing.
"Hospitalizations are still rising. And it's a real problem. Health care providers are overstretched, beds are full," Walke said, providing the "very tough advice" for Americans to stay at home during the holiday season. Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC's director, said the focus now is just on trying to prevent the health care system from becoming completely overwhelmed.
Pence said the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna could get preliminary authorization from the Food and Drug Administration the week of Dec. 14 and said doses could be delivered quickly. "Within 48 hours from the FDA approval, we could be vaccinating people literally in all 50 states and territories all across the country," Pence said.
But Dr. Jay Butler, the CDC's deputy director for infectious diseases, delivered a grim dose of reality. "The week of the 14th is only the beginning of the beginning," Butler said. "This will be a marathon and not a sprint."
Most vaccines will require two doses, and some must be kept at extremely cold temperatures, meaning it won't be straightforward to vaccinate Americans, and will be far more challenging than seasonal flu campaigns or other past vaccination efforts.
States need more funding to help distribute vaccines, and CDC officials also highlighted the need for a concerted public information campaign to convince Americans they should get vaccinated and that the vaccines are safe.
Pence later asked whether the first 40 million doses, expected in late December and targeted for nursing home residents and front-line health care workers, would improve the situation in the United States. "When would you expect to see an impact on the pandemic as we roll the vaccine out?" Pence asked the experts.
Walke said the vaccine could begin to help people in long-term care and nursing homes in the foreseeable future, noting 40% of deaths are linked to those populations. But he cautioned there was not a quick fix.
"We'll need to continue these mitigation measures — the spacing, washing our hands, wearing a mask — probably well into the spring until we get more widely available vaccine," Walke said.