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After Slow Start, More Germans Are Getting COVID-19 Vaccine Shots


Health officials in Germany have a problem trying to convince people to get vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Millions of doses sit unused while the government has scrambled to reverse its messaging. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The road to Berlin's Tegel Airport is empty, except for a few buses. The airport was decommissioned a few months ago after Berliners waited more than a decade for a new airport to open. Now they're waiting for something else - a vaccine. Only the lucky few, like Dr. Astrid Kenneweg, are able to get it. She just stepped out of the old airport now reincarnated as a vaccination center with a Band-Aid on her shoulder.

ASTRID KENNEWEG: (Through interpreter) It's important that we vaccinate people quickly. I think it's as effective as it needs to be, and I already feel better for having had the shot.

SCHMITZ: She's talking about the AstraZeneca vaccine. For the past few weeks, it seems everyone here has been talking about it, about how AstraZeneca did not make good on promises to deliver doses to Europe, about how Germany suggested people over the age of 65 shouldn't take it due to a lack of data, how the government just reversed that decision and is now urging people to get it and how, now, nobody seems to want it, and doses are piling up while more than 90% of Germans have not been vaccinated yet. Kenneweg says it's a mess.

KENNEWEG: (Through interpreter) Some of my colleagues are waiting to get the other vaccinations. They're not too sure about this one.

SCHMITZ: The picky will have to wait. Germany's vaccine rollout, says Die Welt journalist Olaf Gersemann, has been a disaster. At the start of the pandemic, Germany was a global model for how to manage it. But Gersemann says the past few months have shown the country to be the opposite.

OLAF GERSEMANN: This is a country of efficient bureaucracies, and this was how we viewed ourselves. And we looked down on Italians, on Greece and other countries who we thought were less efficient than we are. So - and now we've seen blunders all along.

SCHMITZ: Blunders, says Gersemann, that in other countries would end in resignations or firings - but not in Germany, where he says endless layers of bureaucracy prevent efficiency, results and accountability.

GERSEMANN: I couldn't think of a single politician or bureaucrat who had to resign for his failures. There's multiple failures all along, and it's just OK to fail. And they simply go on and simply don't care. I mean, it's really astonishing.

SCHMITZ: Gersemann shares a personal anecdote to show how bad it's all become. Last year, Germany's government decided it wanted to send vouchers for masks to everyone over the age of 60, so it tapped insurance records to find out whom to send them to. Gersemann says for his family, it didn't go so well.

GERSEMANN: For instance, my 7-year-old son got a voucher. And my father-in-law got the vouchers. My father-in-law has been dead for 27 years now.

SCHMITZ: Back at the former Tegel Airport-turned-vaccination center, 60-year-old doctor Ute Kromrey just got her AstraZeneca vaccine. She thinks the vaccine problem goes beyond Germany.

UTE KROMREY: (Through interpreter) It's an EU problem. We wanted to procure vaccines as a bloc. The British are no longer part of the EU, so they were able to make their own decisions and deals. Here, we had to wait until the 26 member states agreed to go in together, and that delayed everything.

SCHMITZ: But she thinks this will change. She just spoke to people inside the vaccination center who told her they'd only been vaccinating 300 people a day over the past few weeks, but now it's 1,000 per day. They expect it to be 2,000 a day next week, signs that the situation is slowly improving.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.