Scaling Up COVID Vaccinations: Reflections on the Science of Implementation and Spread

By Robert L. Moore, MD, MPH, MBA, Chief Medical Officer

“Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge is to find out what works and scale it up.”

-Bill Clinton, former U.S. President

In spite of several months of planning, the scaling up of the COVID vaccine has been challenging. Often, the scaling up of successful pilot programs and improvement projects encounter problems. Successful large scale implementation is a skill set not necessarily associated with good intentions, innovative thinking, or the size of the organization.

Stephen Dubner offers a nice introduction to this challenge in a Freakonomics Radio podcast, from early 2020.

In the last 10-15 years, a new social science concept called “Implementation Science” seeks to explain the factors leading to implementation challenges and how to overcome them. Several of these frameworks on how to increase the success of large scale implementation were combined into a Consolidated Framework for Implementation.

Here are a few major reasons that scaling up of successful pilots may fail:

  1. The pilot did not actually work (look at the actual data, not the hype).
  2. The people studied in the pilot are not representative of the general population.
  3. Efforts to scale up implementations cut corners and no longer follow key aspects of the pilot program.
  4. Scaling up does not account for limited supply of qualified staff and other inputs.
  5. Scaling up assumes the “build it and they will come” theory; that demand for the intervention will spontaneously be high. An insufficient marketing plan is included.

Over the course of our careers, as we experience or witness failed implementations, it is too easy to develop a sense of fatalism about many proposed expansions. In the case of mass COVID vaccination, our society, health care delivery system, and economy, demand that we have a different mindset. Successful implementation is hard, it is a skill-set, but it importantly reflects a “can do” mindset, not a “can’t do” mindset. It means tackling challenges head on, seeking new solutions to problems encountered, including the key challenge of vaccine hesitancy.

We at PHC thank you, and your staff, for your work on promoting COVID vaccination among your staff and in your community, in the weeks ahead.

More Infectious COVID Strain Will Require Higher Vaccination Rates

By Robert L. Moore, MD, MPH, MBA, Chief Medical Officer

“One of the biggest myths in medicine is the idea that all we need are more medical breakthroughs and then all our problems will be solved.”

-Dr. Quyen Nguyen, Pioneer in Fluorescence-Guided Surgery

Most recent estimates from Great Britain are that the SARS-CoV2 VOC 202012/1, also known as COVID-19 variant (B.1.1.7) is 50% more infectious than the previously dominant COVID strain. DNA sequencing of samples of SARS-CoV2 has been at very low rates in the United States, so we don’t know how quickly this strain is spreading. On Wednesday, San Diego County announced that they had detected 34 cases in the previous few days.

Fortunately, this strain is no more deadly or likely to cause serious illness than other COVID strains. It appears to be more infectious due to a higher number of particles being shed in the early pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic phase.

Unfortunately, a higher rate of infectiousness means that we will need higher rates of vaccination to achieve herd immunity and stop the spread of COVID. Some estimate that a vaccination rate of 90% will be needed to achieve herd immunity to this new strain, instead of the 70% we were counting on since March 2020. In addition, the current distance and time standards (6 feet and 15 minutes) that define high risk exposures may need to be changed as this more infectious strain spreads.

Even when we get past the current major logistical challenges involved in vaccine prioritization and distribution, given high rates of vaccine hesitancy, we have a major public health challenge ahead, which will require consistent strong communication from you, your clinicians and your staff.

By all accounts, much of 2021 is shaping up to look like 2020, from a COVID perspective.

The January 6 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine included a comprehensive overview of the many strategies that can be used to increase vaccination rates. Here is their list of recommendations for primary care clinicians:

  1. Prepare a list of common vaccine questions
  2. Investigate specific concerns of your various segments of patients
  3. Develop a list of effective responses
  4. Practice and train staff for responses
  5. Add incentives (free sports exams, prizes).
  6. Develop prompts to persuade vaccine-hesitant patients and offer compromises.
  7. Make vaccination status observable in your community

In addition, they describe how to vary the message, depending on the level of vaccine hesitancy.

The article describes the targeted strategies in more detail.

For the good of our communities, our health, and our economy, thank you for training and mobilizing your staff to rise to this public health challenge!