With reports of new successful COVID-19 vaccines on the way, the next phase of President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed is revving up. According to a report from the Pentagon today, leadership is now shifting its focus to the delivery of the vaccine to the American public. 

Military logistics planners have teamed up with experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to zero in on the plan to deliver millions of vaccines when they become available.

Operation Warp Speed Director for Supply, Production, and Distribution, Paul Ostrowski, is optimistic about the joint effort: “The CDC brings a lot to the table,” he said. “They get vaccines out every year, from children’s immunizations to the flu vaccine.” 

But the delivery of a COVID-19 vaccine won’t be like your standard flu shot

For one, the vaccine will need to be kept at incredibly low temperatures in order to guarantee its stability and effectiveness. Further, it looks as though the vaccine looks will be administered in several iterations that are not interchangeable. Complications like these will make distribution more difficult and will require a greater level of oversight.

Ostrowski says that an effective distribution plan will rely on the tenets of visibility, coverage, uptake, and traceability. 

“We need visibility — not only of vaccines, but of the ancillary items we’re distributing, like syringes and needles, because the scrutiny will be unprecedented and we want to know what we have and where it is,” Ostrowski said. 

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Coverage, i.e. the broad dissemination of the vaccine, will be a challenge. The traditional models of a static location like a pharmacy or clinic may not be enough to ensure all Americans in need of the vaccine have access to it. “We have to go mobile to be able to cover the entire country and not depend on people to come to us,” said Ostrowski.

Uptake is also crucial. Managing the supply and demand of the vaccine will require accurate tracking systems and inventory management. But traceability is probably the most important — and potentially the most difficult — part of the distribution. 

“The vaccines are not interchangeable,” Ostrowski specified. “We need the ability to verify the manufacturer and to notify the recipient when it is time for their second dose.” 

According to the Pentagon, five of the six vaccines in production require two doses. 

COVID-19 Vaccine card
A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card Nov. 13, 2020, in Washington D.C. The cards will be sent out as part of vaccination kits from Operation Warp Speed, which is an effort by several U.S. government components and public partnerships to facilitate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

But managing the vaccine will ultimately fall to the individual states. According to the Pentagon’s most recent update, Operation Warp Speed, “will deliver the vaccine shipments as directed by the jurisdictions, it will be up to the states, territories and major metropolitan areas to further define where the doses ultimately go.”

This has some states scrambling for creative solutions.

According to a recent Washington Post report, states are working to outflank potential bottlenecks with the vaccination process by utilizing drive-thru car washes and firehouses as auxiliary vaccination locations. 

These local plans will need to be solidified in order for the Operation Warp Speed to deliver. Still, Ostrowski is confident that they can make it happen. 

“They’re doing this now,” he said. “The normal places where people get shots — from chain pharmacies to doctors’ offices — are doing this today. We can certainly do it for a COVID-19 vaccine.”