The United States faces an unprecedented and complex challenge in its effort to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to millions of Americans. Although the initial distribution of the vaccine will be completed in phases to ensure frontline healthcare professionals and high-risk patients receive it before the general population, the planning, resources and logistics necessary for such an extensive operation will be challenging.
Hospitals, health systems, physician practices and pharmacies are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines and will likely have little advance notice before they receive it. Proactively planning for detailed efforts surrounding storing, tracking and administering doses is essential. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of six ways you can be properly prepared to ensure distribution, education and safety to patients.
1. Produce Detailed Plans and Processes
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” The uncertainty about the timing of the vaccine approval and lack of experience in a distribution of this scale produce even more variables for which to plan.
Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) annually distributes more than 80 million doses of vaccines to approximately 40,000 public and private health providers across the country and led efforts to efficiently distribute a vaccine during the 2010-2011 H1N1 flu outbreak, a comprehensive plan of action for administering one for COVID-19 will require even more collaboration. Such plans should be customized by state, region and provider and other criteria.
One resource for learning how to operationalize a vaccination response is the CDC Interim Playbook Planning Assumptions and Key Areas of Information Requested from States for Vaccine Distribution Planning. Providers can create a COVID-19 task force comprised of members from various departments (i.e. operations, human resources, pharmacy) within your organization to start mapping out key roles and responsibilities.
Your task force should be equipped to evaluate your assets, identify potential problems and solutions and pinpoint gaps and opportunities. It also must ascertain any barriers to distributing the COVID-19 vaccines and establish policies and procedures to overcome those obstacles.
For example, the Pfizer vaccine, which just received emergency use authorization (EUA), will be shipped in minimum-975-dose boxes and has to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius (-94º Fahrenheit) until it’s ready to be used. The one developed by Moderna is shipped in boxes of at least 100 doses and needs storage at minus-10 to minus-20 degrees Celsius (14 º to – 4 F º).
2. Consider Collaboration with Third Parties
For any large-scale project to run smoothly, partnership among the parties involved is necessary. For the COVID-19 vaccine, providers collaborating with state and local leadership and other public and private sector partners helps all parties involved identify and understand expectations and roles.
Consider putting together a list of the key decision-makers in your state, region and city along with those responsible for public safety, economic development and education. Communicate regularly with your partners in this effort to ensure everybody is on the same page.
3. Establish Communication Methods and Strategies
Regular and effective communication between you and your team, your partners and other parties within your network is very important for optimized distribution and administration of the COVID-19 vaccine. Determine the communication strategies you want to utilize and establish the methods you plan to use to achieve them.
4. Organize Reliable Resources
Healthcare providers, especially pediatricians, often administer vaccinations, but in this case should plan for doing so with a two-dose series. Consider operational aspects, including how your practice will notify patients of a second dose and how that notification can be done automatically. Wasting unused doses is harmful, especially when supply is so limited.
Implementing staff resources and additional personnel ensures you have an adequate number of team members to oversee and administer the COVID-19 vaccines and that patients aren’t left unattended while others receive it. Your staff still need personal protective equipment to help shield themselves from transmission of COVID-19. Don’t forget about additional supplies such as disinfecting wipes, hypodermic needles and biomedical hazard wastebaskets.
As mentioned previously in this blog, both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines require cold chain storage, a resource you probably won’t be able to procure within only a day or two. If you already have specialized refrigeration capabilities, consider contingency planning in the case of a natural disaster or other event that might cause a power outage.
5. Educate Your Team and Patients
As noted by the CDC, “an adequate network of trained, technically competent COVID-19 vaccination providers in accessible settings is critical to COVID-19 Vaccination Program success.” If you employ clinicians who don’t typically administer vaccinations, they’ll need to be appropriately trained to do so. Other staff members will have to be trained on how to unpack the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and dilute them if necessary.
As a provider, you’ll be tasked with educating the public on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine(s) you’re administering. Plus, you’re still responsible for reminding patients to continue to comply with various public health measures, including wearing face masks, social distancing and washing their hands.
By implementing a scalable outreach program that uses automated workflows to send secure, HIPAA-compliant email, voice and text messages, you’ll be ready to electronically distribute patient notifications and reminders for both the initial and second doses. This automated outreach enables quick and effective patient communications and promotes patient engagement. Unlike secure messaging platforms, basic email and short message service (SMS) may not be compliant with HIPAA unless certain safeguards are implemented to protect sensitive patient information.
6. Utilize Patient-centered Technology Solutions
Every U.S. state has some sort of immunization registry to track vaccinations administered by providers, though they vary in functionality. These registries will be utilized for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Nationwide, the United States Department of Health and Human Services will make use of Vaccine Tracking System (VTrckS). It’s a secure, web-based IT system that integrates the entire publicly funded vaccine supply chain from purchasing and ordering through distribution to participating health departments and providers.
Most healthcare providers use electronic health record (EHR) systems to store, monitor and track patient information. Therefore, you should already have some of the technology and equipment necessary to upload vaccine records to your state registry for adverse event tracking and booster reminders. You’ll be tasked with reporting vaccination data on a daily basis, which might require additional resources.
Somewhat unique to the two primary COVID-19 vaccines expected to be approved soon is the need for two separate doses given multiple weeks apart. As a provider, you should have the capability to track to ensure patients don’t mix and match doses. Part of this process will be using the capability to send and receive reminders to them through a messages app, chat features and other solutions about when to get the second dose of the right vaccine.
Here again, automated patient outreach aids in ensuring quick and secure communication. Another resource is a software tool offering vaccine certification for patients to validate they’ve obtained it. In an already complex process, these tools prepare you to optimize your role in safely and adeptly distributing the vaccine.