From Pharma to the Arm. How Innovation and Technology Drives Vaccine Distribution

By Ed Svetkey

Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Operates as one of New Orleans largest COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution spots

Joe Esneuate, Chief Clinical Data Officer at Tulane University Medical Group, patiently waits to receive a miracle of modern science. In parallel time, the very administration he works for curates one of the largest COVID-19 Vaccine distribution programs in New Orleans.  

Tulane University has not only been responsible for distributing the vaccine to the Tulane community, but the general public as well. As Mr. Esneault says, “We did have an agreement with the city where we were vaccinating the open public for about, we’re still doing that. We’re not taking the first doses anymore but we vaccinated probably about 2500 of the general public.” By signing this agreement, Tulane University has also partnered with Allied Health as well six other Universities to distribute the vaccines to their respective students and faculties. “We’re approaching 10,000 first doses total, and we’ve fully vaccinated about 6500 people. Total injections are about 15,500.”

The rollout of the vaccine, both nationwide and at Tulane, included two main components: eligibility and method of distributor acquisition. Tulane University gets the vaccines directly from the pharmaceutical companies. Mr. Esneault explains,  “It comes directly from Pfizer. So the way that the protocol works, the supplies that they have are limited, so we make a request to the state directly to the state electronically two weeks ahead of time and based on the supplies and the utilization of the vaccine the state distributes that vaccine directly.” 

Mr. Esneuate sits at his Downtown New Orleans office at Tulane’s downtown campus. He, like the rest of the country, excitedly and anxiously waits for Louisiana’s guidelines to shift in his favor. These guidelines have been a point of contention throughout the United States and specifically within the Tulane administration. Mr. Esneuate explains, “The biggest challenge with the vaccine is not everybody agreed with the state guidelines but ultimately we were responsible to follow the state’s protocols… a lot of people didn’t agree with the distribution to medical students for instance early on.” Although this was the case, Tulane has and continues to abide by the state’s guidelines regarding vaccine distribution. On March 26th 2021, Tulane University issued a statement stating that by March 29th, anyone over the age of 16 is eligible to get the vaccine. 

In the middle of January 2021, just one month after the Pfizer vaccine was approved for distribution by the FDA, the 51 year old Chief Clinical Data Officer became eligible for the new vaccine. Two weeks later, after scheduling an appointment through Tulane University, Joe Esneuate walked from his downtown office to the Tulane Convention Center. Speaking on his experience, Mr. Esneuate says, “I had to make an appointment like everybody else. We created a fairly easy way to book an appointment. You can go online, there’s a link that we created. You schedule your appointment for the first dose, those come in, fill out a consent form, check in, complete your registration via tablet and then you get your vaccine, your first dose vaccine. Once you finish that we do an observation area where we observe you for 15 minutes and during that time we put you on your 2nd appointment. You actually get your card and we’ll see you back in 21 days since we are using Pfizer.”

Technological advancement has not only been the catalyst for creating such a vaccine, it has been an integral part of successfully and efficiently administering the vaccine. Will Tran, a graduate student at Tulane University, was pleasantly surprised when on March 26th Tulane sent out an email saying that starting the following week, all adults can receive the vaccine. Speaking on his experience with Louisiana Children’s Medical Center, Will says, “They were a well oiled machine. You go online, I mean you could make it as automated as you want in the sense that you can go online, upload your ID, have all the information for your account they give you a QR code and you can show up when you show up there you just scan the QR code, they printed a sheet of paper, that’s it.” This up-to-date and innovative technological implementation is in part responsible for having over 33% of the New Orleans population being fully vaccinated within 4 months. Will goes on to say, “Every check-in place had an iPad, so you just check in electronically and then they print out a piece of paper. I think its convention center was designed to be a mass vaccination site so it’s designed to like to do that.” 

Will Tran, 28, attending his graduate level math course at Tulane University

The logistics of receiving the vaccine from the pharmaceutical companies require diligent and intensive work. Marla Lampp works with Tulane on requesting specific quantities of COVID-19 vaccines to the state. It is apparent that vaccines are becoming more available. As Mrs. Lammpp states, “Everything I’ve been reading indicates that the vaccine is becoming more available.” However there have been some shortages. These are due to the limited supplies the state receives from the Pharmaceutical companies and therefore are able to allocate. However, shortages can only occur on the requests for the first dose. Mrs. Lampp explains, “We’re given Pfizer which is a two dose vaccination and so it’s the first dose that we’re sort of talking about because for whatever amount of first doses we get, we’re guaranteed to get the second dose.” Guaranteeing correct amounts of the vaccine enables the optimal amount of people to receive it. These processes are what allowed a 28 year old grad student from California to get his first dose of the Pfizer Vaccine within one day of his eligibility. 

There is a sense of excitement, relief, and gratitude on both sides of the vaccine process. Will remembers, “I was super excited about my first dose. I remember after you got your shot you text all your friends like I got my shot…I think we celebrated the first shot getting some sort of cake.” And the second shot, though less exciting, brought out different emotions in Will. “The second one was more like relief…I’m still celebrating but not with cake I’m gonna have cookies ” 

Although immense and necessary progress has been achieved and excitement and celebration is called for, Mr. Esneuate calls for caution. And after considering his future after being fully vaccinated, Will Tran remains careful. Will says, “Before the pandemic I was not completely neurotic but I was likely a germaphobe and never liked touching door handles…I think it’ll be a slow process it’s not going to be something that happens overnight right it’s not like I wake up tomorrow and do whatever.” When asked about how he feels about the general public, Will predicts, “I’m not going to trust the public until the inoculation data says we have herd immunity right so like I trust myself that I’m not going to catch it, but I’m not gonna spread it to anyone and like they’re other strains out there that maybe you know this particular vaccine doesn’t protect against.”

Mr. Esneuate, being within the administration and in the business of vaccine distribution has a unique perspective of both the logistical side of this rollout, and as an individual partaking in what is viewed as the beginning of the end, the emotional side of it as well. He views getting vaccinated as a start, a start of something good. He says, “Optimistic is the word for it. It’s an opportunity for us to get back to some sense of normalcy.” 

When asked about how the vaccine might change his state of mind and if the vaccine will bring society back to a sense of normalcy, Will remarks, “What’s the definition of normal right?” He continues, “Normal life before the pandemic was already just like at school the whole time so I’m still going to be going to the office, I don’t know.” This common question of whether we as a society will return to normal is somewhat of a vague and subjective question. All of our lives are different. Before the pandemic we all had different comfort levels, desired activities, and fear of diseases. A sense of normalcy may be different for some as it is for others. However, some commonalities do exist, and when commentating on what Tulane life is going to look like, Mr. Esneuate says, ““Everything is going to be in person, it’s going to be treated like a regular fall semester.” Will also acknowledges that change will come, saying, “I’ll start doing whatever social events are available yeah as far as dining I’ll start eating out more often you know whatever I can or can’t afford.” Desire for life before the pandemic is somewhat ubiquitous. But acknowledging the slow and difficult process is equally as important. Hopeful and cautious optimism is how we get through this mentally, but diligent, innovative, efficient, and creative work is how we end it. 

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