A population of over 325 million people. A target vaccination rate of at least 70 percent to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19 and put an end to a deadly pandemic. Only months to achieve this goal so that Americans can get back to normal.
This is the challenge before our country in 2021. In fact, it’s more than one challenge — it’s three separate problems for three different groups to solve.
The first problem was developing a vaccine, and scientists succeeded at record speed. Original forecasts, considered ambitious at the time, said it would take 18 months to discover, test, and approve vaccines against COVID-19 The world’s biopharmaceutical community came together to do it in less than 12 months, a miracle of science and a testament to tireless effort. Even better, more vaccine options are on the way.
Then there’s the problem of vaccine administration, getting shots into the arms of Americans everywhere. Sites to give the shots, efficient schedules to get patients through, and other issues are being resolved right now.
As a relief pharmacist in Western New York and as a former State Legislator who was a co-prime sponsor of the bill that made pharmacists immunizers, I and my fellow pharmacists are ready and prepared to do our part to get people in this area vaccinated.
Between these two challenges, however, is another that is often overlooked. Someone has to get vaccines from the manufacturers to the point of administration.
To achieve desired vaccination levels in this country will require hundreds of millions of doses, because the approved vaccines take two shots a few weeks apart to develop strong immunity. There are various production facilities involved in making such an incredible volume and a matching network of transportation and logistics providers to get those vaccines to health care professionals to administer.
Every distribution detail must be carefully orchestrated, adjusting to any changes in manufacturing, local needs, and new vaccine approvals that will soon expand supply. And it must happen as quickly as possible because speeding up vaccination will help save more lives.
This is especially difficult with current COVID-19 vaccines because they must be shipped frozen. Distributors must take extra measures, typically involving industrial refrigeration for storage and dry ice in transit, to keep vaccine doses cold enough. There is no room for error, or the vaccines won’t be viable upon arrival and some of our limited supply will be lost.
While COVID-19 vaccination is critical, it cannot overshadow other essential distribution. Heart medications, antibiotics, insulins, chemotherapies, and other treatments must still flow from over 1,300 drug makers to over 180,000 hospitals, pharmacies, hospices, and other providers across the country.
Fortunately, this isn’t America’s first rodeo, as they say, and we have private sector expertise to manage COVID-19 vaccine distribution while keeping up with all our other health care needs. For example, distributors ensure over 100 million doses of flu vaccine get to doctors’ offices and pharmacies nationwide yearly. These distributors know how to respond in urgent scenarios and have the infrastructure to do so.
As a pharmacist, I count on these specialist health care distributors to get me the medicines I needed to serve my patients. Today as a proud American, I’m glad we can all count on them to handle COVID-19 vaccine logistics to help get us out of this pandemic and on to a healthier future.
Daniel Burling is a former New York State Assemblyman who represented Assembly District 147.