After two months of supply constraints, COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers and U.S. officials have signaled that the spigots are about to open — providing hundreds of millions of doses to match the growing capacity to immunize people at pharmacies and mass-vaccination sites. To face the daunting logistical challenge ahead, organizations should look to best practices in last-mile delivery.
The scale of COVID-19 vaccine delivery will test every best-laid plan we create. Given lessons already learned from 2020, we should expect these delivery challenges:
- Spoilage. Vaccines don’t hold their potency for long. An inaccurate count of doses or mis-distribution can prove disastrous. In general, the further apart the source and the destination, the harder this problem is to solve.
Certain vaccines need to be kept very cold, with Pfizer requiring an ultra-cold -70 degrees Celsius. Regions with poor cold-distribution infrastructure may find themselves sharing it with other industries like agriculture, for example.
- Fragmented communication. When communication breaks down, so does effective distribution. Rules and regulations can vary by U.S. states and counties — increasing the value of reliable infrastructure.
- Accessibility. To avoid long lines or pure lack of access, states and cities need to outfit appropriate venues for vaccination. Many of these will need to be repurposed.
Technology has significantly improved since the last worldwide pandemic, and the past five years alone have brought great strides in supply-chain strategies and delivery solutions. As we’re planning out vaccine distribution mechanisms, government actors and private companies would do well to keep these strategies in mind:
Anticipate bottlenecks. Unified systems are key. An end-to-end delivery platform can help planners manage everything from route challenges to supply gaps. A system that connects the dots and provides clear, secure access to essential delivery data can help planners coordinate appointments and resources in real time.
Boost transparency. If a vaccine freezer breaks down in a truck on the road, the driver should be able to inform the facility instantly. If a hospital is waiting for their shipment, they should know where it is on the route and receive automatic updates on estimated time of arrival. Modern delivery platforms can help everyone make better, faster decisions by automating communication about the vaccine delivery itself.
Incorporate regulatory compliance. Vaccine transporters have numerous regulations to ensure the safety of their precious cargo. Tailoring regulations for these unique needs could help states and regions remove some of the mental burdens. The pharmaceutical and cannabis industries, for example, have embedded established reliable systems into their delivery software to track these regulations and ensure they’re remaining compliant.
Iron out day-of issues. On the day of delivery, features like dispatcher oversight, ETA, automatic SMS message notifications, dynamic navigation and proof of delivery can ensure everyone knows where the resources are and can respond in case of issues.
Stay agile. Last year, many businesses and nonprofits had to pivot their business model rapidly, often in as little as 24 hours. Whatever strategies we use for vaccine distribution, we’re sure to stumble upon unknown unknowns along the way. Real-time mapping and updates will be key to overcoming these speed bumps and delivering vaccines to their destinations. Sharing information between delivery companies will be helpful as well, including data and insights from on-the-ground experiences.
Make contingency plans. Establish a standard process to remind patients of their appointments, as well as a list of readily available alternative recipients to be contacted.
To avoid vaccine spoilage, distribution centers should have backup plans in case their freezers fail. One effective example is the Iowa Department of Public Health’s vaccine storage and handling document, which covers all the backup contingencies in one document. With such valuable vaccines, we’d all benefit from a backup plan.
Use existing facilities. Anywhere with refrigeration that could accommodate large groups of people and has public transportation or parking could be helpful for the physical limitations we’re experiencing. Stadiums, medical ships, or movie theaters are all options to consider.
After a year of lockdowns, we’re all excited to overcome this disease and move on with our lives. While there may be no one-size-fits-all solution for vaccine distribution, we can all work together to improve our models.
Khaled Naim is co-founder and CEO of Onfleet, a provider of last-mile delivery management software.