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Vaccination is now our lifeline

Vaccination is now our lifeline
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This pandemic is not over and the next one could be around the corner. It is now time to think about doing better at getting Americans vaccinated. The coronavirus is mutating, and even some vaccinated people may need updated shots, but fingers crossed that is not the case. Human and animal migration continue at a rapid pace, further repeating the kinds of unusual interactions that likely caused this outbreak. Either way, the country needs better and more efficient vaccination programs to save lives.

The United States developed the coronavirus vaccines in record time. We should have enough for all adults by summer thanks to public and private collaboration in science and manufacturing. However, we must administer vaccines faster and more fairly. Many Americans worked hard to bring us to this place, but many other Americans are still frustrated and distrustful. Plenty of vaccines have been sitting in local storage while people still are not able to make appointments. What lessons can we learn?

Manufacturing supply chains must be sound. Vital supplies like medical grade glass, diluents, stoppers, and syringes must be stockpiled. Accurate data management is so crucial, including knowledge of where the need is, when vaccines will flow there, and how much will be available. States and local governments have juggled control while information gets dropped. Better efficiency and more fairness will need data of when vaccines were delivered and to whom. We need a national view, which is a federal duty, to learn what is actually working and to improve what is not.

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Different delivery mechanisms work for different people. Health care provider networks can reach their patient populations faster, but they have too often been cut out of the process. Mass vaccination sites are difficult to establish, but they can reach large numbers of people in an efficient way. For those who do not have cars, including the vulnerable populations and those people hesitant about being vaccinated, trusted institutions like churches, pharmacies, and individual physicians could reach out into their communities and counsel the reluctant.

Although different vaccination vehicles can be necessary for different people, having multiple and competing appointment systems could be demoralizing. It could suggest randomness and unfairness in who gains access to appointments. Faulty registration systems should be fixed. For this pandemic, targeting has worked against efficiency. Delivering limited doses to vulnerable groups, like those in nursing homes, saves their lives directly, while vaccination of the general population slows the spread of the coronavirus and saves lives indirectly. We will need careful evaluation of this pandemic to make such vital choices in the future.

We must also look forward. The next global pandemic could come before we know it and could be even worse. The national strategic stockpile has to be rebuilt promptly. During any lull before the next pandemic, medical supplies can be purchased for the stockpile from anywhere in the world. But because every global pandemic interrupts supply chains and induces producing countries to hoard these medical supplies for themselves, the United States should also have surge production capacity.

Further, even the best distribution system for vaccines cannot succeed if there are insufficient supplies. Pharmaceutical science has developed the coronavirus vaccines in record time, but manufacturing must scale up far faster if the next strain is more lethal and more transmissible. The United States should build standby vaccine production capacity as a matter of national security and ensure that the country is prepared.

The response to the coronavirus pandemic has been wildly mixed, across public health guidance, the creation of the vaccines, and the rolling out of the vaccines. We have to retain our strengths and bolster our weaknesses. We need those capabilities of the private sector. We need robust research and development. We need a diversified distribution system that includes pharmacies, provider networks, and individual physicians.

We need a robust national stockpile of medical supplies. We need more communication from the public sector. We need a simple and efficient appointment system, with serious data collection on the progress and fairness of the vaccination process. We need more production capacity for this pandemic and the next one. It could be even worse.

Joseph Minarik is the senior vice president and director of research at the Committee for Economic Development of the Conference Board. He was chief economist at the Office of Management and Budget for Bill Clinton.