▶ Watch Video: Gottlieb says Biden administration should have surged vaccines to Michigan “weeks ago”

Washington — Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, faulted the Biden administration for declining to send more vaccine doses to Michigan as the state experiences a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases, saying the federal government should adapt its current vaccination strategy to surge vaccine doses and resources to virus hot spots.

“It’s a request that’s been made for weeks now, and I think we should have done it weeks ago,” Gottlieb said Sunday on “Face the Nation.” “It’s never too late to do it. And it’s not just additional vaccine, but it’s the resources to actually get the vaccine into arms.”

In recent weeks, Michigan has become the new epicenter of the pandemic, leading the nation in new COVID-19 cases by a wide margin, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Last week, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer said she spoke to President Biden and members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team and pleaded with them to surge more doses to the state to help mitigate the spread of the virus. But Jeffrey Zients, the coordinator of the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said Michigan would not be allotted extra doses, stressing the need to be equitable and fair to other states.

“Now is not the time to change course on vaccine allocation,” Zients said Friday. “There are tens of millions of people across the country in each and every state and county who have not yet been vaccinated, and the fair and equitable way to distribute the vaccine is based on the adult population by state, tribe, and territory.”

Whitmer reiterated her call for more vaccine doses earlier on “Face the Nation,” saying that it’s “important to recognize where there might need to be some adjustments along the way.”

Gottlieb said the Biden administration should think more about targeting vaccines and related resources into hot spots as more Americans are vaccinated and outbreaks become more localized.

“We need to get in the habit of trying to surge resources into those hot spots to put out those fires of spread,” Gottlieb said, noting that the entire Great Lakes region is seeing a high rate of infection.

Instead of surging extra doses to Michigan, the White House has sent extra personnel from both the CDC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist with testing and contact tracing, two things the administration feels will make the quickest impact on the outbreak of the virus.

Much of the recent outbreak in Michigan is being driven by infections among young people. Between January and March, Michigan saw 291 outbreaks associated with youth sports teams, according to Whitmer, who last week urged local officials to pause in-person events for two weeks.

“I think it was prudent that the governor tap the brakes or at least make recommendations to local authorities to tap the brakes on extracurricular activities and also high schools,” Gottlieb said. “They’re going to need to take a pause until they get over this surge of infection that they’re seeing right now.”  

Gottlieb noted that the risk in schools directly correlates with the risk in the surrounding community, adding that there has been a 17% increase in outbreaks in communities in the first week of April, which Michigan public health officials believe originated in schools.

On Friday, Pfizer and BioNTech requested an emergency use authorization from the FDA to expand eligibility for their vaccine to children ages 12 to 15. 

On “Face the Nation,” both Whitmer and Tony Thurmond, California’s superintendent of public instruction, were reluctant to embrace the idea of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for kids returning to school. Gottlieb said political leaders across the country will likely be hesitant to mandate vaccinations for students.

“I think issues around COVID have become an unfortunate political flashpoint in this country,” Gottlieb said. “And I think you’re going to see governors across the political spectrum be reluctant to mandate [vaccines], in part because they know if they step into this debate and impose mandates, that’s going to engender more opposition.”

He said decisions about mandating COVID-19 vaccines will likely fall to local school boards, which will face pressure from both sides of the issue.

“I think what’s going to happen is, if you see outbreaks in local communities, they’ll be pressure for local school boards to mandate the vaccine,” he said. “And I think you’re also, unfortunately, in some communities probably going to see fights among parents trying to influence local school boards to mandate vaccination or local health districts to mandate vaccination among kids. So this is going to play out at a local level.”