It’s time to treat the COVID-19 vaccine campaign as if we are at war

The abysmal attempt at mass vaccination against COVID-19 in the United States is uninspiring—a prophecy seemingly set in stone by the testing debacles’ failures.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Tuesday, that of 17 million doses, only 4.8 million had been administered. That’s only 28.4 percent of distributed doses in over three weeks. Of the possible 528 million doses to achieve herd immunity (roughly 264 million people), we are at less than 1 percent. At this rate, it would take over 10 years to achieve that. We need to increase the speed to at least 3 million vaccinations a day.

The federal government has mostly left it up to the states to distribute the vaccines they are sent, and states often punt local hospitals and health departments’ decisions—already overburdened with COVID-19 care. The rate of employee vaccinations occurring in hospitals should be an indicator of what is to come: a snail’s pace of mass vaccination while thousands die every day.

The number of American deaths from COVID-19 is approaching the lives lost during World War 2. We need national strategy, funding, and infrastructure. We had months to prepare; there are no more excuses. To be clear, we are at war with COVID-19. Let’s begin to treat it as such.

We need all-hands-on-deck mobilization. Let’s call upon the United States Public Health Service Corps, the Medical Reserve Corps, American Red Cross, and our military to help build a literal army of vaccinators. In addition, we need to work through national associations while also enlisting community health workers that are not already exhausted hospital employees. We need to invest in human capital.

We need vaccination center infrastructure. Given the failures of COVID-19 testing, we now know that relying on pharmacies, clinics, and hospitals alone will likely be inadequate. We need to set up mass vaccination centers – such as utilizing stadiums, athletic fields, or military-style pavilions, capable of inoculating thousands every day. Ideally, these would be open with extended hours. For hard-to-reach communities, we need mobile units.

We need to enact the Defense Production Act to ramp up vaccination supplies to ensure shortages do not occur.  This could provide private companies the ability to fast-track contracts to accelerate supply, secure more of the vaccine, and increase the availability of supporting equipment like materials and syringes. This should have been done already.

We need innovation to streamline processes – such as a national app and website to complete consent and paperwork before arrival. This would allow someone to show up at their allocated time and receive the vaccine. These formats should also incorporate widespread educational messaging to combat misinformation.

Lastly, we need all of these steps to occur with urgency and transparency. COVID-19 does not care about political party. In fact, it thrives in chaos.

The cavalry has arrived against our war with COVID-19. Vaccines have proven to be safe and effective – but to work, they need to be injected. We must demand our federal government to lead us into battle and step up with wartime-like mobilization of resources. Too many Americans have died – we deserve better.

Jesse O’Shea is an infectious disease fellow. 

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