Coronavirus vaccine distribution could take months, depending on where you live

Coronavirus vaccine distribution
Photo via PATH global health/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • Distribution can be disrupted, particularly in rural areas
  • The size of a state’s population may leave some without enough vaccines
  • A disorganized plan may make distribution hard to track

November brought multiple reports of successful COVID-19 vaccines, and on Nov. 18, Pfizer announced its coronavirus preventative was “safe and 95% effective.” The company said it will be seeking emergency Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. 

A COVID-19 vaccine seems to be just around the corner, but there’s a sticking point. How will vaccines be distributed to a nation of 331 million in a timely and appropriate manner?

There are some significant logistic hurdles which will need to be overcome for the successful distribution of vaccines. 

The Guardian reported that the Pfizer vaccine must be kept on dry ice and stored at -94°F, which leaves it viable for up to 15 days if the ice can be replaced. Most pharmacies do not have refrigerators or freezers that get this cold, and because dry ice is considered a hazardous material, it cannot be transported by air or sea. There’s also been a shortage of dry ice during the pandemic. Ground-only transport means that several days of viability can be lost by the time it arrives in rural communities. 

Early in the pandemic, it became clear that a shortage of healthcare workers had a serious impact on COVID-19 response. This same shortage could affect vaccine distribution, as staff will first have to be vaccinated—so as to avoid an entire staff falling ill with possible side effects at once—and return for a second dose. The Guardian also reported that vaccines are being allocated based on state population rather than the number of healthcare workers, so some states will be short while others have a surplus. 

Distribution will likely be disrupted by the distance between a manufacturer and a community, as well as the size of hospital staff in the state. Plans being set in motion by the Department of Health and Human Services, through Operation Warp Speed, depend on local and state governments to continue distribution efforts once they receive vaccines. 

The problem here is that multiple states say they need more money to distribute vaccinations once they receive them. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has said his state government will need more federal funding to execute a mass vaccination program. ABC News reported that Missouri, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Maryland, and Minnesota have all expressed need for additional funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), or another variety of federal funding, to ensure an effective distribution of coronavirus vaccines. Several of these states are unsure how much funding they will receive. 

Even Bill Gates is worried about how a COVID-19 vaccine will be distributed. Citing a lack of federal guidance regarding distribution for local and state governments, Gates said he fears the approach may be “dysfunctional.” 

“I’m worried about vaccine distribution not going to the right people,” Gates said in an interview with STAT co-founder Rick Berk. “Wow, it is a dysfunctional set of people at the moment.”

Read more on the coronavirus vaccine:

Sources: The Guardian, STAT News, Health and Human Services, The New York Times, ABC News

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