Health system execs: national approach needed to stem vaccine disarray

Executives running some of the nation’s largest health systems said they have little to no visibility into the vaccine supply they receive from states, complicating the task of vaccinating a large swath of the U.S. population quickly.

“We don’t know until we open the package how many doses we’re getting that week,” EVP of Ascension Joe Cacchione said Thursday during a webinar organized by the American Hospital Association.

Executives from Trinity Health and LifePoint Health joined Cacchione in calling for a more streamlined approach to vaccine distribution and the ability to predict incoming supply. One major obstacle at the moment for health systems of their size is the variability across each state. They noted that the process and data collection is different in nearly every state they serve. 

“We are not saying that there is one right answer for every state, for every county, for every community across the country, but a consistent framework applied nationally would minimize wasted effort, maximize learning and accelerate vaccine administration,” said Chief Medical Officer Christopher Rehm of LifePoint Health, which operates hospitals in many non-urban areas in 29 states. 

Without any predictability into incoming supply, it’s hard to plan vaccine appointments. Even worse, when systems receive less doses than they expected, they have to cancel appointments. 

“It’s really hard to tell frontline workers and frail elderly that we need to reschedule their shots because vaccines didn’t arrive,” said Mike Slubowski, CEO of Trinity Health, which operates 92 hospitals in 22 states. “Strong communication and coordination of predictable supply is critical.”

Cacchione said one week they received 75,000 doses, 50,000 the next and 20,000 after that. He advocated for health systems to receive a direct supply of vaccines as the variability across states has added friction to the process. What’s unclear, Cacchione said, is how allotments are being decided.  

Slubowski also made the case for why health systems should get more direct supplies and work directly with the federal government, pointing to health systems’ ”very sophisticated supply chain operations.” 

Without a clearer picture, they argued it will continue to hamper vaccination efforts.

“That opaqueness and lack of seeing into the future of what’s coming makes it really hard to plan an efficient enterprise,” said Rehm at Lifepoint, which has administered 121,000 doses so far. 

To date, Trinity has administered 300,000 jabs and Ascension is nearing 400,000. The CDC reports more than 46 million doses have been administered across the U.S., as of Feb. 11. 

The current state-by-state approach is a legacy of the Trump administration, which largely did not put a focus on distribution.

President Joe Biden is making efforts to boost the federal government’s role in getting the vaccines out efficiently, for example by formalizing direct shipments to pharmacies and setting up federal distribution sites in NFL stadiums.

This week he announced his administration has secured enough vaccines to be able to vaccinate every U.S. adult by the end of July. 

On Thursday, Biden said his administrated signed final contracts with vaccine makers to secure 200 million more vaccines, which included a contractual provision to move up the delivery date of 100 million doses by one month. Biden touted the earlier delivery will save lives.