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Wisconsin Health Official On COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution In His State

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Exactly one month ago - December 11 - the FDA authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use. Well, that same day, we spoke with Dr. Jeff Bahr of Advocate Aurora Health. That's a hospital system in Illinois and Wisconsin. And he was really upbeat about getting shots quickly into arms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEFF BAHR: We're very optimistic. We're talking about a matter of days, but it could be weeks. But really, we're maintaining positivity right now.

KELLY: Well, in the last month, we have seen lots of hiccups in the rollout. Of the 25 million vaccine doses distributed, a little over a third have been administered. So we thought we would check back with Dr. Bahr to get an update on how things look from where he sits. He joins us today from Milwaukee.

Dr. Bahr, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BAHR: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Are you still feeling optimistic?

BAHR: Absolutely. I think when you're talking about a process that has been this anticipated in the midst of a pandemic, I don't think you're ever going to meet everybody's level of satisfaction with how quickly you get everything out. Everybody wants to be front of the line. That said, when you look at the number of doses we've been able to administer at this point in the process over this period of time - the last three to four weeks - we're very pleased with our progress.

KELLY: And what - if I may jump in - what is the progress where you are in Wisconsin and Illinois? How many shots have you all actually gotten into arms?

BAHR: Within our system, in a period of three weeks, we exceeded 30,000 doses. And I think we're over 600 individuals who have gotten both doses so far. We'd love to have 10 times that amount by now.

KELLY: Yeah.

BAHR: But certainly, you know, we've provided a lot of hope for a lot of people to this point.

KELLY: And what is the barrier to getting 10 times that many doses into arms? Is it supply? Is it distribution? What's slowing things down?

BAHR: Well, I think when you're looking at a process this complex, nobody expects it to go without wrinkles. In some cases, it's a question of getting the supply from point A to point B, into somebody's arm. It's a question of how much and when and on what day, and then trying to coordinate just - not just one dose for a person, but then a second dose three to four weeks later - making sure that you've got the cold storage for the appropriate vaccine at that location. So I do think that the sands - at least in the early going - shifted regularly. So it tested the nimbleness of teams everywhere.

KELLY: I need to ask about a specific incident in one of your facilities in Wisconsin. In late December, a pharmacist was arrested - was accused of deliberately spoiling more than 500 doses of the Moderna vaccine. What extra precautions have you taken since then to safeguard your supplies?

BAHR: Well, that's a conversation in process right now. And again, we've had wonderful collaboration and cooperation with state and federal regulators to assess our processes. And we're going to reach some conclusions together as to what might be done in the future to prevent that from happening again. But again, we're very confident that our processes are safe and effective in getting the vaccine out.

KELLY: OK. But for people listening who were alarmed by that - as many of us were - can you give assurances that if they are lining up to get a shot at one of your facilities, that that shot will be safe?

BAHR: Yes. We can say very clearly that there is no potential for harm to the people that have received the vaccine to date. And again, I would state very clearly the vaccine is our way out of the pandemic. So I would encourage anyone who is able to go and sign up for an appointment to receive the vaccine.

KELLY: Well, let me look ahead to what the coming weeks and months may be. As I'm sure you know, President-elect Biden has vowed to get 100 million shots into 100 million arms in his first 100 days. So are you ready for a major ramping up? Do you have the facilities, the staffing that you need?

BAHR: Yeah. I'd say, right now, we're fortunate in that the number of COVID-positive inpatients has started to decrease in recent weeks, despite the holidays having come and gone. And so we're fortunate in that the vaccination effort is not concurrent with a spike in COVID incidents.

KELLY: Oh, that's interesting. What do you think explains the numbers going down despite the post-holiday spike that a lot of states are witnessing and trying to manage?

BAHR: Well, the optimistic side of me tells me that people may have been listening to us when we asked them to mask up, to maintain social distance, to avoid the large family gatherings around the holidays. So I'm hopeful that we're seeing the fruit of our labors on that.

KELLY: That is Dr. Jeff Bahr. He oversees medical operations at Advocate Aurora Health in Wisconsin and Illinois.

Dr. Bahr, good to speak with you.

BAHR: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHROMATICS' "THERE'S A LIGHT OUT ON THE HORIZON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.