Though you won’t exactly be getting a vaccine with your coffee run, Starbucks is among a growing number of big-name companies — think Walmart, Microsoft, and Amazon — to pledge their resources to the COVID-19 vaccine distribution effort.
“This is an opportunity to serve others and have impact on a significant humanitarian effort,” said Kevin Johnson, Starbucks president and chief executive. “We are proud to contribute in every way we can to help operationalize and scale equitable access to the vaccine.” The Seattle-based coffee giant has thus far committed eleven employees with expertise in labour, deployment operations and research and development to work with the Washington state government.
The U.S. vaccine distribution has in fact been marred by operational bottlenecks pushing doses to near expiration, and poor coordination between the federal government and individual states, leading to numerous regional shortages across America. According to a poll conducted in late January by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe their government is doing a “fair” or “poor” job distributing vaccines. Now, as the pandemic continues to weigh on the economy and vaccines are still hard to come by, corporate giants have found themselves poised in a unique position to make a significant impact in helping the world heal from COVID-19. The most important task at hand? Vaccine distribution.
Vaccine distribution is a data-driven process. Huge amounts of real-time data go through AI, the IoT, and blockchain everyday, and it’s not just about getting shots into people’s arms. It’s about serial number verification, cold-chain traceability, and vehicle routing and geofencing. And with all their technological and logistical prowess, there is an opportunity here for the private sector to make a win-win arrangement of a situation that has been far from ideal — indeed, doing good for society, but also for the companies’ market perception, as well as a sooner return to healthy, paying shoppers.
Knowing this, some might ask why Big Tech doesn’t run the whole show. Amazon’s logistics network can deliver my impulse packages in one day, and Google, with all the data it collects, seems to know me better than I even know myself. It seems that Amazon and Google could easily handle a nationwide vaccination project. Unfortunately, this is not true. Amazon’s speedy delivery relies on the company’s vertical integration; it handles every step of the process, from taking the order to home delivery. But tech companies have learned they have much less control when it comes to vaccine distribution. The federal government pays for and manages the vaccine supply to individual states. From there, states, counties and corporations take over to determine how those vaccines will reach peoples’ arms. This means that while Big Tech is still making an impact, the expected changes will be a little less dramatic.\
Vaccine distribution is a data-driven process
Tech companies have been contributing to the pandemic response for nearly a year now, when Google and Apple first collaborated to help with contact tracing. There has been no shortage of enthusiasm in the private sector since: Uber and Lyft have offered free rides to and from vaccination appointments, and Google and Verizon are helping pay for advertisements promoting vaccine awareness. Google also plans to transform four office locations, parking lots and open spaces into public vaccination sites in Washington, California, and New York.
Other companies that aren’t in the Big Tech realm are also eager to help. Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, will offer the vaccine at 5000 U.S. locations. “Walmart has the reach and the qualified, trained pharmacists and pharmacy staff to partner with community organizations to provide vaccination services at third party locations like churches, stadiums and youth centers,” the retailer said in a news release. Indeed, big retailers are in an ideal position to help with the vaccine rollout. Their core businesses are accustomed to serving thousands of customers every day, and have established effective national distribution and logistics networks. This means that retailers like Walmart are pretty much already doing what the government has to do with vaccines.
Witnessing the challenges of vaccine distribution, companies like Workday, Salesforce, Microsoft, and ServiceNow have been eager to push new vaccine management service offerings into the market. For instance, Workday’s software can track immunization status of employees, and view vaccination rates throughout the company by job profile, region, etc. On the other hand, Microsoft’s system, developed for government and healthcare workers, aims to streamline the registration of vaccine providers and patients, phased scheduling, reporting, and forecasting. Their help, however, is meeting mixed reception.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said that Microsoft’s website rollout presented “real challenges” for the state, and his administration commented on their “subpar experience” working with the firm, noting that Microsoft’s platform was “misconfigured” and crashed regularly. Sometimes, users could even sign up for appointments at inactive or closed vaccination sites.
State and county health departments vary in the way they set up vaccination sign-ups; some focus on volume, while others focus on the overlooked elderly, minority, and low-income populations
Public health experts have jumped to Big Tech’s defense, arguing that these challenges are not their fault. State and county health departments vary in the way they set up vaccination sign-ups; some focus on volume, while others focus on the overlooked elderly, minority, and low-income populations. “Everyone is talking about equity with the vaccine. But given a choice, most people would prefer volume because it would get us out of the pandemic faster,” said Dr. Kim Rhoads, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, whose latest research examined COVID-19 infections in the Bay Area’s Black communities. “That’s the thing about website crashes and these tech systems being overwhelmed. We’re going for volume there.”
On the positive side, the private sector’s involvement in vaccine distribution is already contributing to a brighter future of healthcare. Governments have been considering a “vaccine passport” to enable international borders to reopen for travel, and the likes of Oracle, Microsoft and Salesforce have partnered to create exactly that. The system will allow individuals who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to easily access their records to prove their status when traveling or using public spaces. It’s an important innovation, given that vaccinations aren’t currently kept on public record, and are stored solely at your doctor’s office. The implementation of such a digital system could leave a lasting impact, long after the coronavirus seems but a distant memory, and be used to store other vaccine records for situations like young children entering school.
From a societal perspective, it’s wonderful to see companies using their power for good. From a branding perspective, it’s just good business. Conscious consumers have become increasingly demanding, and while many firms have made pledges to sustainability and corporate social responsibility, the COVID-19 effort is just another opportunity to show that they truly care about the world, and not just the profits they reap of it.