5 Ways GIS Can Improve COVID Vaccine Distribution

COVID vaccinations are not happening at the pace we need. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can simplify the planning and logistics of administering the vaccine by: identifying optimal vaccination sites, prioritizing populations, matching sites to populations, inventory management and targeted info campaigns.

Now is the time when we need to use everything at our disposal to win our war against COVID-19. Vaccines are now available. The challenge is no longer one of science but of logistics and the goal is simple – get as many people vaccinated as quickly, safely and cost effectively as possible.

So far, the vaccine rollout has been less-than-ideal with spoiled doses and delays. GIS can help make it better.

I recently sat down with Este Geraghty, Chief Medical Officer and Health Solutions Director at Esri to learn more about how GIS can achieve speedy and equitable COVID vaccinations.

Identifying Vaccination Sites

The first way GIS can help is identifying the facilities in a community that can administer the vaccine.

“This may sound obvious and easy,” said Geraghty. “But there is a lot of detail involved.”

Not only are there storage consideration (super-cold fridges + overall fridge capacity), but also staff and space capacity. Does the facility have enough staff to dedicate to administering the vaccine without impacting normal operations? Does the facility have sufficient physical space indoors and in their parking lot for the throngs of people who will be lining up to get vaccinated?

Putting facilities and their capabilities on a physical map (enabled through GIS) can help quickly identify what resources are at hand and what additional resources may be needed.

These are critical considerations now that we want to vaccinate at scale.

Locating Prioritized Populations

The CDC has published guidelines on who should be prioritized to receive the vaccine while supply is scarce. Knowing who should be vaccinated is only part of the challenge. To ensure those people get the vaccine quickly and cost effectively, planners need to also know where those people are located.

This is where GIS can help – showing where different prioritized populations are located within the community.

Matching Vaccination Sites to Prioritized Populations

Once the potential vaccination sites and the prioritized populations have been mapped in GIS, you can then match the two together and identify potential gaps in coverage. It would be important to know, for example, if there are people who need to be vaccinated who are more than 60 min drive to the nearest vaccination site or who are more than 3 bus routes away.

Here is an example from Esri:

Imagine how much better the COVID vaccination would go if state governments and public health had planning tool like this? Not to mention how much more equitable the distribution would be if they took into consideration the transport distance.

“When you see there is a gap on the map, you can start getting creative,” explained Geraghty. “Who else could deliver vaccines? Maybe you look at dialysis centers, blood banks, poison control centers, independent pharmacies. There are many facilities in the community where there are people who have the necessary skills to deliver vaccines.”

Inventory Management

In these early days of COVID vaccination, inventory is so limited, it is relatively easy to manually track how much is on hand and where it is. As vaccines supply increases, however, this manual tracking will become unsustainable. It is vital to know how much vaccine is available and where it is.

From a delivery perspective, optimizing the route for new supplies of vaccines will cut down on transportation costs. There is also dry-ice and other factors to consider for the vaccines that require cold storage.

From a distribution perspective, knowing who is running low on vaccines will allow communities to better redistribute precious vaccines from areas of low-need to areas of acute-need. With GIS it would also be possible to create an extremely helpful Vaccine Wait Times map like the following:

Targeted Communication

One of the most interesting ways GIS can support COVID vaccinations is by helping to better target communications and community outreach.

There are many people who are hesitant about getting the COVID vaccine. If we could identify those individuals and map them, local governments and public health may find clusters. Knowing where these clusters are, through GIS, makes it possible for more targeted and more frequent vaccination messaging.

Enhancing that geographic insight with other sources of data – like socio-economic information such as education level, primary language, and income – would allow for even more honed messaging. It is even possible to combine GIS information with output from sentiment analysis companies that scan social media and other such publicly available sources to better understand the prevailing attitude toward the vaccine.

“There’s an old adage in marketing – you can’t be in front of all audiences all the time,” said Geraghty. “That’s cost prohibitive. But knowing specific areas where you need to convey your message, that’s judicious.”

A Flu Shot Test Case

These five ways GIS can help with vaccination-at-scale is not just an Esri theory. Everything that Geraghty spoke about has been used in the field.

Carlton County in Minnesota, for example, used GIS to administer the flu shot to their community. They used GIS to understand which hospitals were at risk of becoming overrun with flu cases. They then set up drive-thru flu clinics in those areas.

Using Esri they allowed people to pre-register for their shot via a simple website which gave them a registration number. As people drove up to the clinic, there was a large digital sign that showed what number they were currently serving and where they were in the queue (picture the number system at a deli counter).

The combination of GIS, good communication, and efficient operations made this the most effective flu shot campaign in the county’s history. They vaccinated more people against the seasonal flu than ever before.

“In fact,” Geraghty stated. “The people commented about how great the process was for kids because you didn’t have to take them out of the car. They all want the county to do this same thing for COVID-19.”

The Goal

Geraghty summed up the current situation succinctly: “The whole point is to end this pandemic as quickly as possible. There are a lot of different approaches, but only a few that will get us there faster.” She firmly believes that leveraging geographic information and combining it with other information (vaccine inventory, capacity, socioeconomic data, etc) is one of the approaches we can take for the COVID vaccine.

Watch the full interview to learn:

  • Why the level of vaccination needed to achieve “herd immunity” is different region by region.
  • How GIS can help if people don’t get the 2nd dose of the vaccine
  • What we can learn from flu, hepatitis, measles and other vaccination programs
  • Potential ways to make COVID vaccination motivating and maybe even social media-worthy

For more information about Esri’s COVID vaccine solutions, check out https://coronavirus-resources.esri.com/pages/vaccine

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About the author

Colin Hung

Colin Hung

Colin Hung is the co-founder of the #hcldr (healthcare leadership) tweetchat one of the most popular and active healthcare social media communities on Twitter. Colin speaks, tweets and blogs regularly about healthcare, technology, marketing and leadership. He is currently an independent marketing consultant working with leading healthIT companies. Colin is a member of #TheWalkingGallery. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.

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