At the beginning of 2020, who would have imagined that the year’s most-sought products would include masks and sanitizers or that terms like flattening the curve, PPE, CARES and super-spreader would become part of our daily conversations? At this point, most of us would admit to being more than a little tired of all things COVID-19. But now we can add another keyword to our lexicon: vaccination. And as much as I would like to move on to something new, this vaccination chapter is the most important one yet.
What will we tell our grandchildren (and, for some of us, our children as they emerge from the basement and head precariously back to school) about what we did during these critical days?
Getting COVID-19 vaccinations right isn’t just an opportunity; it’s an imperative. At the heart of this challenge in the U.S. are underfunded public health departments, which do mostly underappreciated work. For generations they have vaccinated Americans against the toughest of diseases: polio, measles, smallpox, hepatitis, meningitis, flu and, hopefully soon, COVID-19.
Unlike most of the others, the vaccine for COVID-19 will be administered during a time of epic political, economic and social tumult. We have lived through so much this year. We can ill afford to mismanage or inequitably distribute live-saving doses of a vaccine that promises not just to prevent a disease but also to return some sense of stability and normalcy to the world.
And yet, the task before us hasn’t been done in recent history: vaccinating an already weary population in the right places, at the right time and, for certain vaccines, doing it twice in 21 days. That speaks only to the social challenge and says nothing of the technical hurdles of maintaining super-strict cold storage via a highly secure supply chain. Beyond that, we must convince 70%+ of the population to be vaccinated so that we may have a sufficient level of immunity.
Outside the U.S., many countries have joined COVAX – the vaccines pillar of the ACT-Accelerator convened by CEPI, GAVI and WHO. COVAX is working to accelerate the search for an effective vaccine for all countries and to guarantee fair, equitable access for every country in the world.
Here in the U.S., we are relying largely on our states. As with COVID-19 testing and tracing, I know that each jurisdiction will approach this challenge a little differently. Whatever path a state (or city, county or university) chooses, I encourage leaders to focus on four must-dos:
1. Put together a detailed supply chain model to forecast supply and demand. Make sure it is sophisticated enough to handle all the distribution and visibility needs of your state or community.
2. Develop unambiguous distribution guidelines and procedures so that the phased rollout will be equitable, orderly and easily understood by everyone – from those administering the vaccine to those receiving it and from local leaders to the media.
3. At all times, communicate openly and transparently with all citizens. Design a community engagement plan down to the zip-code level. Be forthcoming about who is eligible to receive the vaccine, when and how they can do so, and how the vaccination plan is going. People will give us space and grace to make a mistake, but only when we are straightforward with them.
4. For U.S. states: Aggressively use CARES Act monies to fashion and disseminate the plan. You can have a best-in-class immunization distribution and tracking system, but if you do not have a healthy supply chain model and communications approach, you are missing the foundation of how this will succeed.
Making all of that happen requires an orchestration of expertise and technologies spanning public health, public sector, life sciences, supply chain and marketing and communications. To say we are in unchartered territory is cliché. But that makes it no less true.
I want my kids to hang out with their friends. I want to get on a plane and go somewhere for fun. Heck, I want to go to a Red Sox game next year in the hopes that the team will be better than they were this season. To get to that point, we must get vaccination right. Our path forward must be crisp and precise, measured and data-driven, communicated and explained to everyone. Let’s do it – together.
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