States Ramp up for Biggest Vaccination Effort in U.S. History

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With a COVID-19 vaccine drawing closer, public health officials across the country are gearing up for the biggest vaccination effort in U.S. history — a monumental undertaking that must distribute hundreds of millions of doses, prioritize who’s first in line and ensure that people who get the initial shot return for the necessary second one.

The push could begin as early as next month, when federal officials say the first vaccine may be authorized for emergency use and immediately deployed to high-risk groups, such as health care workers.

“The cavalry is coming,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He said he hopes shots will be available to all Americans in April, May and June.

Pfizer also boosted hopes this week, saying early data suggests its vaccine is 90% effective. But the good news came in one of the grimmest weeks of the pandemic so far. Deaths, hospitalizations and new infections are surging across the U.S. — and turning up the pressure to get the vaccine effort right.

For the vaccination effort to get off the ground, state officials have been readying systems to track supplies and who has been vaccinated. That information will be fed into a national network and will be critical in giving federal health officials an up-to-date picture of vaccinations around the country.

Providers such as pharmacies and doctor’s offices will also need to be able to look up records, so people do not have to return to the same place for their second shot. More than one vaccine could also become available, and doses cannot be mixed and matched.

“We not only have to bring people back for a second dose, but need to make sure that we have very good records of which vaccine they received the first time,” said Dr. Jinlene Chan of Maryland’s health department.

States already have immunization registries, which will be used for COVID-19.

Providers will also have to report vaccination information daily, which will be an adjustment for those that typically enter data weekly or every couple of weeks, state officials said.

To help people find doses in their area, the CDC wants to put information on a vaccine finder website, which will be updated each day with the latest inventory.

States are also working to expand the number of pharmacies, doctor’s offices and other providers that can administer COVID-19 vaccines, to ensure shots are conveniently available.

Because of the likely need for two doses given three or four weeks apart, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering ways of helping Americans remember the second shot, including issuing cards that people would get with their first shot, akin to the polio immunization cards many older Americans remember carrying.

“If there’s going to be any real challenge, to be honest with you, it’s going to be convincing folks to get the vaccine,” said Patrick Peer, who runs the Good Neighbor Community Health Center in Columbus, Nebraska.

So far, states have received far less money than they say they need for vaccine distribution, and it’s unclear if any more federal help is coming. Public health groups estimate that an additional $8.4 billion is needed to pay for staff, data systems and outreach and supply costs.