Almost a century ago, in the winter of 1925, diphtheria broke out in the isolated north Alaska town of Nome. Ten thousand people in the area faced a horrible death from the highly contagious lethal disease.
To save them, a great vaccine race was organised. The vaccine — an anti-toxin serum made from the blood of horses exposed to the disease — was sent to Fairbanks by train. And then the precious serum was transported across the last 1100 frozen kilometres to Nome by relay teams of 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs in five days. They saved Nome and the surrounding communities too.
It was a moment of true American heroism. As the teams raced from village to village toward Nome, their progress was followed with screaming headlines by every newspaper in the states. If the story sounds familiar, that's because it's the basis for the Disney classic Balto. The famous Iditarod dogsled race is held each year in Alaska to commemorate it.
We're having a vaccine race again in the states, but it's not nearly as heroic. With the pandemic raging, with 3000 daily Covid deaths and total deaths surging towards an easy 500,000 next month, we now have chaos in vaccine distribution here.
There is supply — about 25 million jabs have been dispensed according to Bloomberg News. And we're now giving out more than a million jabs daily. But demand exceeds supply massively. And getting your jab takes luck, days of patience, and skills honed buying concert tickets or finding blackmarket rugby seats for a championship game.
It's important to understand that there is no national health service in the United States and state public health departments are thin, underfunded and struggling with the pandemic itself. Most people get ordinary vaccines from their doctors, from drug stores or from other retail stores. Although the Trump administration Operation Warp Speed did a swell job helping industry spit out highly effective vaccines, they did pretty much nothing to organise its distribution or fund the states here to do so.
As a result, vaccine access is tough for the poor, the offline and the elderly. It favours people who are richer, well connected, better educated, resourceful and computer literate. If you really work at it, move fast, use four different computers, try 100 different possible online outlets, or have a friend with access, you can probably get a jab. If they don't cancel you in a week because they have run out.
Qualification for getting the jab varies from state to state and day to day. Here in Washington state, jabs were at first reserved for healthcare workers and elder care centre residents. Then it was expanded to other first responders and service workers, with many complicated sub-categories. Then it was expanded to all those over 70. But just a few days later, without adequate supply, it was suddenly opened to everyone 65 or over, creating the stampede.
Some states are doing a decent job, including sparsely populated Alaska, Covid-ravaged North Dakota and poor West Virginia. Washington is in the middle of the pack in doses per capita. California, not so good. North Dakota has given out about 92 per cent of available doses there. California — 48 per cent.
The situation has become sufficiently dire that President Biden appeared on TV yesterday to address it. He promised that by the end of summer, 300 million Americans could be vaccinated. He announced that the federal government plans to increase output of doses to the states to 10 million weekly up from 8 million now. He announced the US was purchasing an additional 200 million doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine, which New Zealand has also bought. This brings US vaccine purchases up to 600 million doses from 400 million previously. At two jabs per patient, that should be enough to cover most of our 328 million population.
But getting it is the hard part. Consider the story of my wife's cousin Brian and his wife June in New York. He's a retired Wall Street investor. She's an artist. And they're both very computer literate. And they tried for weeks to get a reservation for jabs there with no success.
"We were scrambling trying to find something," Brian explained. "Each time I searched Google, it sent me to a different vaccine website. It was crazy hard just to get through. Then you have to qualify. Are you over 65? What's your address? Then by the time you answer, there's nothing available. So you go to another website for another vaccine location. Three places promised to call me back. None did. It was like trying to get tickets to a sold-out concert."
Brian reached out to a friend who worked as an executive at a major drug company. And his pal quickly texted him the phone number of a hospital in a New York City slum neighbourhood that had just received supply. Brian called, had his choice of days, and they got their jabs last week. They had to drive 200km from their home, but it was worth it.
I imagine it was like a vaccine speakeasy: "Psst. We're here for the jab." What's the password? "Fauci."
My brother-in-law in Houston has a golfing buddy who knows a man who runs a local emergency care hospital. The hospital man sent my in-law an email address. He replied. They got their jab last Friday. My stepmother, who easily qualifies as an 80-year-old cancer survivor, got her vaccination a few weeks ago. She didn't get it because she obviously qualifies. She got it because someone in her Houston apartment tower somehow arranged for everyone in the building to get a jab, whether they qualified like my stepmother or not.
We did this better in 1925.