What this medical epidemiologist learned from prior pandemic vaccination efforts

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It was the fall of 2009.  I was a medical epidemiologist at the largest local health department in the state of Colorado, in charge of coordinating the area’s H1N1 pandemic vaccination efforts.  The CDC was distributing vaccine to state and local health departments, and we were in turn responsible for getting it out to our citizens.  It was a daunting task – we were exhausted from months of dealing with a novel virus, and like most local health departments, we were underfunded and understaffed.  But we were dedicated – and through partnerships with volunteer nursing associations and local school districts, we were able to create makeshift immunization clinics in gyms and cafeterias throughout our counties. And through these efforts, we successfully vaccinated over 60,000 people in six weeks, while distributing the rest of our over 300,000 allocated doses to area health care providers.

I was tremendously proud of what we were able to accomplish, despite our limited resources. But I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better way. These thoughts especially plagued me on the days we had extremely long lines and three hour waits for vaccines.  I wondered if the private sector could be leveraged more, so that vaccine distribution could be faster and more efficient.  I had similar thoughts earlier this year, during the latest pandemic, when coronavirus testing remained stalled initially in the public sector, with little private sector involvement.  While eventually private labs were given the green light to work on coronavirus testing, the initial wait lost us valuable time in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

I hope this mistake will not be repeated when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine.  A public-private partnership will be necessary to maximize the efficiency of vaccine distribution.  The public health sector is under-resourced and incredibly fatigued at this point, given all their responsibilities thus far with the pandemic.  We need to make sure that a variety of private sector players are ready to lend a hand in dealing with one of the largest mass vaccination efforts the country has ever seen.

And I don’t just mean involving health care providers – I mean involving grocery stores, pharmacies, worksites, transportation companies, senior and childcare centers, libraries, and malls in vaccine distribution efforts.  And companies that provide navigation services should be involved as well – to help people find appointments in their local areas while avoiding the long wait times we’ve seen with testing.  Given the way this coronavirus transmits, the last thing we want to create is long lines of people waiting for vaccines – which will inevitably (and ironically) lead to the next super-spreader events.

The coronavirus pandemic affects society as a whole.  Relying on the public health sector alone will not be enough to combat it.  Let’s learn from the past and establish private-public partnerships in advance to get vaccines distributed as rapidly as possible.  So many lives depend on it.

Tista S. Ghosh is an internal medicine physician and epidemiologist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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