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The swift development of highly effective vaccines for the novel coronavirus was a marvel of modern science, holding out the prospect of an early end to a pandemic that has rampaged across the country. But creating vaccines is one thing; getting them administered is another. That part of the process is not a marvel but a muddle.

In mid-December, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that 20 million Americans would get shots by the end of the year. By Jan. 8, 21.4 million doses had been distributed, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--but only 5.9 million had been administered.

This sluggish rollout coincides with continued tragedy. On Thursday, more than 4,000 people died in the United States from covid-19, the third straight day of record fatalities. More than 360,000 deaths have occurred.

What's holding up actual vaccinations? It's hard to escape the conclusion that the federal government and state governments just failed to ramp up sufficiently for a mass inoculation program, which they knew was coming.

Planning was complicated in the U.S. by uncertainty about how many doses would be coming and when. The rollout unfortunately coincided with the December holidays, which slow almost every human activity. Unlike many vaccines, these are in limited supply. That being the case, states have targeted various groups in order of priority, with medical workers and nursing home residents and staff first in line.

Reaching a broader population won't be simple. We were glad to hear Pritzker say the National Guard will be used to set up mass vaccination sites. The state and local governments need to be doing everything possible right now to shift into high gear.

On Friday, President-elect Joe Biden's transition team said that after taking office, he would release nearly all available vaccines instead of holding back enough for the required second dosages. He's betting on producers being able to continually refill the pipeline. The fact that there are conflicting opinions about the optimum rollout isn't reassuring, but if Biden is choosing urgency over prudence, that's the right call. People are still getting sick and dying. The country can't fully reopen the economy and send people back to work until the vaccine is broadly distributed.

As Pritzker said, "This is a race to get vaccines in people's arms as fast as possible." It's a race we can't afford to lose.

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