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COVID-19

States are scrambling to build vaccine distribution infrastructure

Erika Beras Oct 8, 2020
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A volunteer receives a COVID-19 vaccination in a trial at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida, in August. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

States are scrambling to build vaccine distribution infrastructure

Erika Beras Oct 8, 2020
Heard on:
A volunteer receives a COVID-19 vaccination in a trial at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida, in August. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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The race is on to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, but there are lots of unanswered questions out there.

What drug company will make it? When the vaccine will arrive? Who will be first in line to get it? And when it does arrive, it’s really not clear if the infrastructure will be in place to distribute it.

Creating a new vaccine has its own scientific challenges. Then come the logistics.

“The different vaccines that are under development have different storage needs and different infrastructure needs,” said Katherine Baicker, a health economist at the University of Chicago. For instance, some need medical freezers that cost thousands of dollars. “A negative-80-degree freezer is not the kind of freezer you buy at Home Depot,” she said.

There may be shortages of those freezers, as well as vials and special syringes — and who knows what else.  

“We could, theoretically, just as we did with testing supplies, run into some problems of having enough vaccine, but not enough of the injection material to actually put the shots in the arms,” said Georges Benjamin, director of the American Public Health Association.

And even if the supplies are there, trained personnel are needed. 

“The people that are going to have to give the vaccination are the same people that are involved in managing the testing [and] contact tracing,” Benjamin said.

But health departments are cash strapped, and money to administer the vaccine may not come in until the vaccine arrives.  

Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said if the funds were available earlier, “we could be preparing by already ramping up the workforce.”

Money could help with that vaccine prep, but there’s still uncertainty about exactly what to get. 

“We may have to return something or be stuck holding the bag, if you will, because we have a product that is not useful,” said Umair Shah, who runs the Harris County Public Health department in Houston.

Local health authorities are waiting, and in the meantime responding to the pandemic.  

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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