Shots in the arm

Summary of a FORTUNE Virtual Discussion: What we got wrong. What we got right. Global lessons from the vaccine effort.

By | 3 minute read | March 24, 2021

A nurse injects vaccine into patient's arm in a doctor's office.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 shutdowns across the United States, we are finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Forty-four million Americans have received their first dose of the vaccine and positivity rates are down, Fortune Editor-in-Chief Clifton Leaf pointed out. Acknowledging our progress, he juxtaposed the good news with the latest grim milestone: 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States. Over the course of our conversation, we discussed what we have learned from the vaccine rollout so far and how we need to move forward into an uncertain future with equity, science, and trust at the center of our efforts.

Watch the replay of the FORTUNE Virtual Discussion: Shots in the arm

Dr. William J. Kassler, chief medical officer, Government Health & Human Services, and deputy chief health officer of IBM Watson Health, predicted that as our experience with the vaccine grows and supply chain issues are resolved, we could return to a semblance of normalcy this summer. But he cautioned, “We know that there are folks that are hesitant

about vaccines, who are unable to prioritize vaccines in their lives.” He explained that reasons for vaccine hesitancy vary and will require public health agencies to tailor their education and outreach efforts to the populations they serve.

Some of the vaccine hesitancy stems from a real fear among Black, brown, and other historically marginalized populations, Dr. Marc Watkins, chief medical officer of Kroger Health, told us. Others come from a mistrust of government or the science behind the vaccine itself. On that point, Dr. Watkins made a stunning realization: “… misinformation may be more deadly than the pandemic itself.”

Allison Neale, executive director of public policy at Henry Schein, Inc., agreed, citing the importance of spreading the word on vaccine safety. “A lot of the hesitancy has come around [this] extraordinary scientific feat… [but] these vaccines were not developed only in the last year. They sit upon a foundation of decades of mRNA vaccines,” she explained. That’s why it is crucially important for primary care physicians, pharmacists, and local public health departments, who have the trust of the community, to help spread the word.

Online scheduling for the vaccine is an equity issue as well, asserted Neale and Watkins. To counteract this particular barrier, Neale believes we will see a rise in partnership between public health departments and community health centers like doctors’ offices and pharmacies.

“With our 7,000 pharmacists around the country, we believe they are some of the most accessible health care providers,” Watkins said. As an executive at the country’s second-largest retailer, he knows the value of being able to call your local pharmacist, particularly for the elderly who may have trouble accessing an online appointment. “That last mile for us is really around accessibility and convenience for us for folks to come in and get a vaccine [at their local pharmacy],” he added.

Assuming we can solve the formidable issue of vaccine hesitancy and equitable distribution, problems still remain with the supply chain. In fact, Watkins reminded us that the CDC has always stated that vaccines for COVID-19 would be in short supply. Further, Neale revealed that “the supply chain challenges we experienced during this pandemic, unfortunately, were predicted following the Ebola outbreak in 2014.” She cautioned that we must continue to invest in the supply chain after the crisis has subsided—and continue to build critical public-private partnerships.

On the importance of public-private partnerships, Kassler put it simply: “No company is an island.” He and Watkins are part of a group of chief medical officers who share information and best practices on health issues, such as vaccine management. The same goes for public-private partnerships. Watkins urged us to continue building partnership: “…we are all in this together. We just can’t do it alone.”

Neale reinforced this point, adding that partnership is not just a matter of success, it’s also a question of morality: “It’s becoming clear to all companies that this perspective of partnership and collaboration is the right thing to do for the world and [it’s] required.”