EDITORIAL: Can we find a better way?

THERE HAS TO BE A BETTER WAY to vaccinate a country of 331 million people, doesn’t there? Let’s assume some who read this agree. Does that mean we also agree on how we define what “better” means?

The statistics of the Covid-19 pandemic can make you dizzy even if you’re perfectly healthy. Some people get lucky and make an appointment on their first try just like some people win the lottery. In this pandemic, better would mean enough of the vaccine so that everybody could schedule appointments for their first and second shots at a time and place that is reasonably convenient.

If availability is part of “better,” then vaccinating the country will get a little better this week. The Biden administration will increase the number of vaccine doses by more than 20% to 13.5 million. Also this week the doses that go to pharmacies are scheduled to double, to 2 million.

The inclusion of pharmacies to help the government improve access to public health programs is not a new concept. You can already get vaccines to reduce the threats from the flu, pneumonia and shingles at the chain pharmacies. They are part of the neighborhood and now they are a component of a better world without Covid-19. That’s where, last weekend, I got the first of my two vaccinations. It was a Walgreen’s store right down the road… in Manhattan. More on that a little later.

States get to make the rules that determine the order in which people receive the Covid-19 vaccine. And this is where the concept of better becomes less precise. In New York State the first people eligible for vaccination were healthcare workers and then other frontline personnel. Eligibility after that was gradually extended to state residents 65 years old and older. Now adults and teens with “comorbidities,”—serious medical conditions including cancer, heart disease and chronic illnesses—can schedule vaccinations regardless of age.

But people with those comorbidities can’t get Covid vaccinations from pharmacies. And anyone claiming to have a qualifying medical condition has to have a note from a doctor verifying the condition. This requirement puts an extra burden on people who can be at greater than average risk of Covid-19 infection. Its seeming cruelty may be the best measure we have of how far this country still is from having enough vaccine to immunize everybody who wants it.

I’m eligible by age and I signed up with the county and the state. I requested email alerts of vaccination events. I checked the state and county websites. I signed on to the local pharmacies website that promised to post local vaccination opportunities. Nothing, nothing and more nothing. Then one of our daughters called me here at the office.

She told me a Wallgreen’s pharmacy in the Inwood neighborhood in New York City had doses of the vaccine. She had the store website on her browser. There were eight doses left to be scheduled. Did I want one, she asked. It’s a long drive, I said. There are six left, she said. I said, I don’t know. She said, You could die and now there are only two, No, there’s one!

Get it, I said.

So last weekend I went to Inwood. A busy neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan. I had my vaccination ticket. At least one other person had wanted it. The trip made life better, for me. I can only hope that the doubling of available vaccine doses for pharmacies this week will mean more doses at that Walgreen’s store.

The challenge we all face—the president and the country—is not only to ramp up our ability to manufacture and deliver lifesaving medications. We also need to assure that we distribute those medications in the most humane, fair and efficient manner. It shouldn’t depend on your computer skills. And it’s not acceptable to make sick people go to the back of the line in this or any other state. Fixing those flaws of this pandemic response before the next pandemic arrives is a crucial step toward a better way to heal.

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