Vaccine Distribution Underway; Convincing Consumers Remains A Priority

COVID Vaccine

The COVID-19 vaccine is now here, but convincing consumers to get it might present a challenge.

The COVID case spike is certainly creating its own darkness around the world. But as the old expression goes, it is always darkest before dawn – and at this point, we do know dawn is coming. Because the vaccine is here.

And not just theoretically anymore. Distribution officially began in the U.K. last week, and here in the U.S., the FDA has authorized the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for the general public. Distribution will start with priority groups — healthcare workers and people in nursing homes are already seeing the vaccine roll out, with a longer-term plan of getting the vast majority of nearly 300 million Americans vaccinated by the end of summer 2021. That’s a very lofty goal that will require a lot of things to go right over the next eight or nine months, as Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Senior Scholar Crystal Watson told Vox.

“This is going to be the largest mass vaccination campaign that the U.S. has ever attempted,” Watson said.

It’s a project so big that some experts are comparing it to the moon launch. It requires an incredible amount of logistical coordination to produce and distribute a vaccine that must be given out in two temporally spaced doses and stored at sub-zero temperatures. There are single-dose versions of the vaccine currently in line for approval, as well as ones that have less extreme needs for cold storage – but the logistical challenge of trying to distribute 300-600 million doses in such a compressed timeframe remains daunting at best.

But as it turns out, that may not be the heaviest lift when it comes to putting the vaccine into people’s hands. The biggest challenge may in fact be the people themselves.

PYMNTS’ data on U.S. consumers’ intentions to seek a vaccine — gathered after news of the Pfizer vaccine was already in the public sphere — is less than totally encouraging. Only 37.9 percent reported that they “strongly” plan to get vaccinated, slightly outnumbered by the 38.4 percent of people who say they “definitely” or “probably” won’t. It is possible, however, that because the data was gathered early in the vaccine conversation, respondents may have shown an unusual degree of resistance to the vaccine. However, though the PYMNTS survey was conducted only a few days after the news of the Pfizer vaccine broke, most consumers were well-informed about the vaccine news — more than eight in 10 (82 percent) said they were familiar with the Pfizer-BioNTech announcement.

A muted response to the vaccine is a problem – because in order for a vaccine to create synthetic herd immunity, 80 percent of the population would need to get it. That means a lot of those “probably nots” need to be transformed into hard “yeses” over the next several months.

Retailers like grocers and pharmacists, including CVS, will be a big part of that distribution plan. In an email to some customers over the weekend, CVS said it is “urgently” looking to add to its workforce so it can distribute vaccines. A page on its website details the hiring push for what it calls the “COVID-19 Vaccine Support Team,” comprised of pharmacists, nurses and pharmacy technicians who will help administer “millions of vaccines in 2021.” Jeff Lackey, vice president of talent acquisition at CVS, told the Boston Globe that the company planned to hire 15,000 workers, including 10,000 pharmacy technicians — at first to help administer a wave of flu shots, but soon to distribute COVID-19 vaccines. As of Dec. 8, CVS said it had hired more than 9,000 pharmacy techs, with plans to hire more.

Walgreens similarly noted in a statement that it plans to both offer the vaccine to consumers and educate them on its importance via its specially trained distribution staff.

“Our purpose – to champion the health and well-being of every community in America – has never been more clear or critical,” John Standley, Walgreens president, noted in a statement. “Walgreens pharmacists have been supporting communities every step of the way throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and will play an important role in the administration of vaccines to high-priority groups, as well as the general public, once available.”

Moreover, those pharmacies in recent years have increasingly looked to develop a class of “health influencers” like Ashley Haby, a self-described “Jesus lover, wifey, blogger and mompreneur,” who found herself recruited by Walgreens in 2019 as part of their efforts to boost the influenza vaccine.

“I didn’t really go into the benefits of the solution or why you should get the flu shot,” she noted of her pro-flu shot posting. “I wasn’t pushing it down anyone’s throat.”

The campaign, though ultimately discontinued by Walgreens, was also ruled a success by the firm, noting that 40 influencers who signed on motivated an upsurge in vaccinations that season. We imagine those influencers might be back in 2020, that there will likely be more of them and that they will be pushing the COVID-19 vaccine hard.

Because the end is near – but it will never actually be here unless people start regarding the vaccine as a definite to-do, not a maybe or something to be avoided.

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