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Warehouses must brace for COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Image credit: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

By Bob La Loggia, Chief Executive Officer, Opendock

A coronavirus vaccine will likely be approved by early 2021, as several pharmaceutical companies continue phase three trials and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to utilize an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). What’s less clear, however, is when the average person will be able to access the vaccine. The political climate adds to the confusion, as politicians frequently state their own predictions regarding vaccine availability, creating nebulous and easily misinterpreted sound bites. 

But FDA approval is only the first step in the process. The manufacturing and distribution processes commence after approval, and those of us who work in the supply chain know that these are not trivial steps. Plus, complicating the vaccine’s mass distribution and administration is a prioritized list of who will have access to the vaccine first. The guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is clear. NASEM has detailed those guidelines in a four-phase approach:

  • Phase 1a covers front-line health care workers.
  • Phase 1b covers people with high-risk underlying conditions and higher-risk older adults.
  • Phase 2 covers high-risk workers (teachers, childcare staff, bus drivers, etc.); people with higher-risk underlying conditions; and people who are generally under a higher risk such as those in detention centers or prisons.
  • Phase 3 covers young adults, children and people who work in jobs that put them at moderate risk of exposure (hotels, banks, gyms, universities, factories, etc.). 
  • Phase 4 covers everyone else.

Enforcing these guidelines will be problematic, to put it mildly. 

In an attempt to ensure we move as quickly as possible to get a vaccine into the hands of the population, the government has created an initiative called Operation Warp Speed (OWS). It’s a joint public-private effort that has provided leading vaccine developers with billions in funding, while also trying to get a jump on manufacturing and distribution. 

McKesson, with its success in distributing the H1N1 vaccine, has been selected by the government to be the centralized distributor for the vaccine. Preparations have already begun. With the trials well underway and OWS making sure all the steps are prepared in advance, it’s likely that we’ll see widespread vaccine distribution by mid-2021. 

The pandemic won’t come to a halt

Just because a vaccine is being actively administered, it doesn’t mean the pandemic will just stop in its tracks. Not only will there be a defined order in which people receive the vaccine, but having enough inventory available for just the Phase 1 individuals could take months. It could feasibly be a six-month period or longer to get through all four of the phases. That means that “everyone else” may not get the vaccine until late 2021. 

Plus, a recent Pew COVID-19 survey noted that 49% of respondents — adults living in the U.S. — said they definitely or probably would not get vaccinated. The FDA has stated that it will approve a vaccine if it is 50% effective in preventing the disease or decreasing the severity of infections. Note that a typical flu vaccine is 40%-60% effective in preventing someone from catching the flu. All of this points to the elusive herd immunity being nowhere in sight for a long time to come. 

So if your warehouse is operating differently because of the pandemic, you can plan on it being that way well into 2021 and probably much longer. 

Economic activity will quicken

Contributing to the pandemic raging on will be the tendency for governments to continue easing economic activity once a vaccine is being actively distributed. Local, state and federal governments will be under immense pressure to keep the economy moving forward. 

With a vaccine in place, they’ll be able to justify quickening the pace of returning to normal. 

For most suppliers and distributors, this is a good thing. When easing began several months ago, many warehouses saw an immediate uplift. That activity level has continued and even increased for some warehouses. When even more easing occurs, it will benefit nearly all warehouses. Some businesses in the healthcare field, such as warehouses that distribute personal protective equipment (PPE), will eventually start to see a slowdown. But because of the continued need for PPE to administer the vaccine and case counts staying elevated, that dip in activity could be years away. 

Also, there’s a high likelihood that having a vaccination will work its way into the rules of entering a business establishment. By now, we are all used to the signs stating that you cannot enter a place of business without wearing a mask. Get ready for a slight twist on those signs to call out those who have been vaccinated. For example, you might see: “Please wear a mask if you have not been vaccinated.” Or, there’s a strong chance we’ll go the route some Asian countries have gone in having people prove via a card or a status on an app that they have the antibodies or have been vaccinated. 

Expect pockets of hysteria

A deadly virus plus a prioritized list of who will get the vaccine makes for a great movie plot (Anyone see Contagion?). While we hope that people remain calm and patient, we saw what happened during the initial stages of the pandemic. We experienced a state of panic when we sensed that supplies of certain items might be limited. 

When a vaccine is available and being administered, yet most people can’t get it, there is a 100% chance that we’ll see pockets of hysteria. Some people may pretend to be part of Phase 1 by wearing scrubs and having fake hospital identity badges. And black marketers could surface, as they feed on situations where demand is very high and supply is very low, sending prices through the roof. 

What this means for warehouses is unknown, but almost all businesses will be impacted. When the conditions are ripe for hysteria, people tend to act irrationally. Sometimes that means staying home, sometimes it means stockpiling, and other times it may simply mean making bad decisions. For warehouses, this means being ready for anything.

All warehouses have already been impacted by the pandemic, even if just by having concerned workers. But as we get closer to having a vaccine ready, you’ll start to see some shifts in behaviors. The vaccine will impact your warehouse. It’s just a matter of how and to what extent. 

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