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Why did Team Trump vow to release non-existent vaccine supplies?

Administration officials announced they'd make all of their coronavirus vaccine supply available immediately. The trouble is, the reserves didn't exist.
Image:  Covid-19 vaccine
A medic at Memorial Healthcare System, receives a Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine in Miramar, Fla., on Dec. 14, 2020.Chandan Khanna / AFP - Getty Images file

After a vaccine rollout that was, at best, disjointed, the Trump administration made a significant announcement about a week ago: breaking with their original plan, officials said they would make all of the administration's coronavirus vaccine supply available immediately. The doses that were being held in reserve would be released to the states, in the hopes of reaching more people much faster.

As the Washington Post reported six days ago, "Over the next two weeks, [then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex] Azar said, doses held in reserve will be shipped out based on states' orders."

There was, however, one small problem, which became apparent late on Friday: the vaccine doses held in reserve didn't actually exist. As the Post reported in follow-up article:

When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced this week that the federal government would begin releasing coronavirus vaccine doses that had been held in reserve for second shots, no such reserve existed, according to state and federal officials briefed on distribution plans.... Now, health officials across the country who had anticipated their extremely limited vaccine supply as much as doubling beginning next week are confronting the reality that their allocations will remain largely flat, dashing hopes of dramatically expanding access for millions of elderly people and those with high-risk medical conditions.

To put it mildly, governors -- the one who started making distribution plans based on the announcement the Trump administration made last Tuesday -- were not pleased. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) described the mess as "a deception on a national scale." Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (R) said of federal officials, "They were lying."

As Rachel explained on Friday night's show, if these circumstances seem at all familiar, it's because the Trump administration has made the same mistake twice: it was just a month ago when these same federal officials sheepishly conceded to states that they were not going to be able to keep their promises on delivery of vaccine supplies.

Vaccine development is an incredibly difficult process. Rapid vaccine production isn't much easier. Everyone involved in the process has to be patient and understanding about these kinds of logistical constraints.

But when the Trump administration makes bold promises -- twice -- and fails to follow through on its commitments, it's more than just disappointing. It rises to the level of a genuine national controversy in need of an explanation.

It's against this backdrop that the Wall Street Journal reported that state and local officials clamored for months for federal guidance on a vaccine distribution strategy, but leaders of Operation Warp Speed -- the unfortunately named vaccine program -- "waited more than two months to approve a plan to distribute and administer Covid-19 vaccines ... leaving states with little time to implement a mass-vaccination campaign amid a coronavirus surge."

Dr. Bruce Gellin, a former Health and Human Services vaccine official and president of global immunization at the Sabin Vaccine Institute, told the Journal, in reference to Trump administration officials, "They didn't plan for the last inch of the last mile, the part that matters most -- how you're going to actually vaccinate that many people quickly."

Forgive my preoccupation with post-policy governance, but it is astonishing: Trump administration officials took the obvious step nearly a year ago to work on vaccine development, but in the months that followed, it didn't get around to settling on and implementing a vaccine-distribution plan.

And when it came time to do the work without a plan, those same Trump administration officials started making promises they couldn't keep, including pointing to supplies that don't exist.

But wait, there's more. On top of all of this, the Trump administration has reportedly withheld information from the incoming Biden team, and it wasn't until last week when members of the president-elect's operation were allowed to attend an Operation Warp Speed meeting.

The Washington Post reported that members of Joe Biden's incoming administration, denied important information from Team Trump, have resorted to gleaning information about coronavirus vaccine production and distribution "from long-standing contacts in pharmaceutical companies and federal agencies." The article added that incoming officials "have gotten information through back channels from career staff working 'off the clock' and using personal email accounts."

Yes, all of this is bonkers, but more important is the impact this will have on public health. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are infected every day; thousands of Americans are dying from COVID-19 every day; and the outgoing Trump administration is still once again failing its latest critically important governing test.