The next phase of vaccination will be even harder

Florida might serve as a cautionary tale about trying to vaccinate large numbers of people without advance planning. The state is currently offering vaccines to seniors over 65, in addition to the federally recommended priority groups of health-care workers and long-term-care residents. But it delegated the logistics to counties, which came up with a host of different plans that ran into a host of different problems: long lines of seniors waiting overnight in some counties, confusing registration sites and outright scams in others. Without better coordination, these scenes could soon play out across the country.

On the most basic level, scale creates new challenges. And the first coronavirus vaccines require very particular storage conditions and skill to administer, adding to the difficulty. Exactly how community vaccination centers solve these problems will vary state by state, city by city. Ballad Health, a hospital system in eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia, is working with local health departments to open five community vaccination centers for the elderly, three in Tennessee and two in Virginia. The centers are in buildings near a hospital with ultracold storage, so doses can be quickly thawed and transported. Jamie Swift, the chief infection prevention officer at Ballad Health, says her team has had to plan for everything: staffing phone lines, traffic flow, even just having enough chairs available for seniors waiting for their vaccine.

The hospital drew on experience in vaccinating their own staff and local doctors, but planning for the community is more complicated. In hospitals, “it was a very controlled population. These are our employees. This is who’s eligible. You have to get your badge to get in … end of story,” Swift says. With the community vaccination clinics, the hospital is expecting more questions and more time for each person.