As besieged healthcare workers leave, Americans face new challenges to get COVID boosters | Opinion

·4 min read

As we look back over the past 10 months since the first Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was administered under emergency-use authorization (EUA), the United States has made much progress. Almost 400 million vaccines have been administered with 187 million people fully vaccinated, representing 57 percent of the U.S. population, a resounding achievement for both American science and logistics in this unprecedented vaccination campaign.

But soon we enter a new chapter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that people older than 65, adults in long-term care and people between 50 and 65 years of age with underlying health conditions receive the Pfizer-BioNTech booster shot, provided they have been fully vaccinated for six months or more. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration authorized use of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots.

This is on top of news this week that plans are under way to get shots into the arms of kids 5-12, a large, yet fully unvaccinated, group of Americans.

While these vaccines will reduce the spread of infection, getting people vaccinated creates further challenges, especially in an era of supply-chain strains.

Assuming another 10% of our adult population and 60% of children will seek vaccination for the first time — and 50% of the eligible adults will need booster shots — at least 125 million doses will need to be administered. This represents more than 30% of the vaccines administered in the past 10 months. Staffing will present a significant challenge to achieve this goal in six months.

Increasingly, healthcare workers are being targeted. Nurses assaulted by patients are up threefold in some areas. Healthcare workers — who have worked overtime under stressful conditions during the pandemic during the past 20 months —are dropping out of the workforce. Pop-up vaccination tents and nurses administering vaccines are being attacked.

These incidents reduce current staffing and discourage new people from entering the healthcare workforce, creating a major capacity shortage. Hospitals, clinics and public-health organizations must find creative ways to vaccinate or administer booster shots to large swaths of our population quickly, efficiently and in a secure environment.

Many strategies can be adopted to overcome this shortage and achieve the goal of administering 125 million vaccines in six months or less. While not the only one, drive-through, mass-vaccination clinics offer a solution. More people can be vaccinated in secure locations more efficiently with fewer nursing staff. There is no need for making appointments, having to worry about cancellations or waiting for excessive amounts of time.

In the United States, there are more than 200 cities with populations of more than 140,000. Arranging mass-vaccination clinics during holidays and weekends will not only help with the nurse-capacity problem (more nurses may be available to work overtime during weekends), but we can also administer 5,000 or more vaccinations each day.

Almost 10 million people can be vaccinated during the four weekends in a month. These clinics, in combination with those administered in hospitals and primary care clinics, will go a long way in getting more of our population vaccinated and help slow or stop the spread of the virus during the ominous winter season.

We use drive-throughs to order food, pick up laundry and vote. Why shouldn’t we use them for vaccinations on a larger scale? Many South Floridians, as well as residents in California and Pennsylvania, already received their initial COVID-19 vaccinations this way. If COVID-19 ends up transitioning from a pandemic to a common flu like disease where a vaccine may be required each year developed for the variant that is expected to be dominant, the need for drive-through, mass-vaccination clinics only increases.

I call on local government and public-health organizations to think big, bold and long-term. They must begin planning for facilities (similar to fairgrounds) that allow the local community to rapidly establish (and take down) clinics during peak demand periods, like what is soon arriving. Such clinics would be part of a new infrastructure. With federal funding for physical and human infrastructure likely to occur in the near function, city and county officials must actively begin planning for the construction of such sites to best streamline vaccinations and provide for healthcare workers who have sacrificed so much during this time.

Sunderesh S. Heragu is a Regents professor and head of the school of industrial engineering and management at Oklahoma State University.

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