Categorized | Health, Pushback

Vaccine Distribution Should Be Based On Need Not Politics

COVID, Vaccine,

On top of local delivery snafus, there are vaccine supply equity issues as well. The federal government uses software known as Tiberius, created by data giant Palantir, to divide the total amount of vaccines available each week to the 50 states plus territories.

By Al Norman

In early March, the media in Florida reported that the grocery chain Publix’s had become the state’s largest COVID vaccine supplier, receiving nearly 25 percent of Florida’s available doses. Publix happens to be a major financial supporter of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Furthermore, public health officials in that state did not know which individual grocery stores got the vaccine. It appeared that Publix was making that decision, not the state. One infectious disease expert said: “Publix is not a public health entity. It should not be relied on to make decisions about the geographic distribution of vaccines.”

That prompted me to look at my own state of Massachusetts, to see how the vaccine rollout was going. I logged onto my state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment Scheduling website, looking to help a few elderly friends who had been unable to secure a shot. I was greeted with this message: “Your estimated wait time is 7,565 minutes.”

I couldn’t image waiting on the phone for a 126 hour marathon (5.25 days non-stop) stuck in the state’s “waiting room.” I was curious about who could have created this bizarre wait list website. At the bottom of the site it said it was “powered by Project Beacon.”

According to Project Beacon’s website, three entities created this monster: F-Prime Capital, a global venture capital firm; Google Ventures (GV), the venture capital arm of Alphabet, which own Google; and the Broad Institute, a partnership between MIT and Harvard.

patient-centered, Social Security, ageist, nursing, COVID, Trump, vaccineWith this impressive technology and talent, a vaccination site should do better than deposit its guests into a waiting room for 126 hours. The governor of my state warned citizens at the end of December that our vaccine rollout would be “lumpy and bumpy.” Two and half months later, the lumps and bumps are still visible.

At the local level, the vaccine sites in Massachusetts unfortunately have a linked-entryway into the state’s giant waiting room. If you try to make an appointment, you are advised: “Clicking on links below to schedule an appointment will take you away from the [local] Vaccination Collaborative website, and bring you to the state website.”

I called one local vaccination site repeatedly, but never heard back. I emailed them as well, and received no response. These sites advise the public: “Appointments fill up very quickly, generally within 20 minutes of being posted.” A cruel game of vaccine roulette.

By contrast, I was asked to help find vaccine for a 77 year-old living in the town of Richmond, Rhode Island (pop 7,741). I found on the R.I. website that Richmond was offering local vaccine clinics. I called the town, and that same afternoon the town administrator herself called me back, took down the elder’s information, called him, and set up his first and second vaccine appointments beginning a week and a half later.

On top of local delivery snafus, there are vaccine supply equity issues as well. The federal government uses software known as Tiberius, created by data giant Palantir, to divide the total amount of vaccines available each week to the 50 states plus territories — based on the number of people over age 18 in each place.

Those numbers then go to the CDC’s ordering portal, VTrckS, where state health departments get their weekly order. The state health departments then set their own allocation priorities, many using the Center for Disease Control’s “Social Vulnerability Index,” to allocate vaccines within the state by census tract, based on 15 factors such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity/language, and housing/transportation.

The whole system has been described as “layers of algorithms.” It’s like a black box to the public.

In much of rural America, concern has been raised that COVID vaccines are not making it the “last mile” in their journey.

Using simple population data, my analysis of the actual number of vaccines shipped to Massachusetts counties, suggests that the largely rural counties of Western Mass have been shorted on vaccines compared to the twp more populated Eastern Mass Counties of Middlesex and Suffolk.

These urban counties have 2.9 times more people than the four Western Counties, yet received 4.7 times more vaccines (846,205 doses vs. 179,906 doses in W. Mass.) If the four counties of Western Mass had received the same percentage of doses-to-population of Suffolk and Middlesex counties (35 percent), it would have translated into an additional 108,161 doses for Western Mass — a whopping +60 percent increase over the 179,906 doses actually shipped as of March 2.

A combination of a “lumpy and bumpy” vaccine appointment system, constrained vaccine supply in rural areas, plus high consumer demand, has left my state a frustrating place to get that elusive shot in the arm.

It is clear that the anxious public — especially people age 55 and over who are more at risk to this virus — have no clue how decisions are made that affect their life. Each state should not only be able to explain how and why vaccines are being rationed, but also guarantee to the public that vaccine distribution is based on need, not on politics.

And this is very important, because, as my pharmacist told me while I rolled up my sleeve for the vaccine: “This shot will at least keep you out of the mortuary.”

Al Norman worked in the field of elderly services for 38 years. He can be emailed at

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