How One Woman Is Innovating Health Care to Get More People Vaccinated

Edward J. Merrens, M.D., chief clinical officer at D-HH

Photo Credit: Brigham and Women’s Hospital

The first COVID-19 vaccinations happened under the watchful eye of the nation and the world as cameras captured each milestone moment.  For many, it was a sign of hope. But unprecedented challenges quickly arose.  

Vaccine supply was uncertain, and distribution was difficult. Access was limited. Misinformation spread like wildfire. And COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy became a new phenomenon.   

People across the U.S. and from all walks of life expressed reluctance to receive the FDA-approved doses for a multitude of reasons — from the speed of development and approval to religious considerations. As we headed into the second half of 2021, the delta variant emerged, and health care organizations scrambled to manage a new rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations and urge more people to get vaccinated. 

So how are hospitals and health systems overcoming these pandemic challenges and more?  

Ask Rebecca Weintraub, assistant professor in the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, director of Better Evidence and the COVID-19 Vaccine Delivery project at Ariadne Labs, and practicing internist and vaccinator at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. 

Weintraub has dedicated herself to developing and deploying tools and resources to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are understood, available and distributed efficiently and equitably. 

Her work at Ariadne Labs as part of the vaccine delivery team focuses on developing adaptive systems that achieve speed, scale and equity as vaccine supply and demand shift over time. 

This work includes an interactive web tool designed to generate predictions on the COVID-19 portfolio, in real-time, with up-to-date data. A Vaccine Allocation Planner helps state and county decision-makers visualize equitable vaccine delivery by estimating the magnitude of populations in every U.S. county and the vaccine coverage achievable under various scenarios.  

Now Weintraub and the vaccine delivery team are working on new COVID-19 vaccine strategies to reach populations of people still not vaccinated. They are developing an implementation package to engage primary care providers in vaccinations, aiding state and federal leaders in capturing best practices and making improvements on tracking and delivering vaccines. 

By using these game-changing tools, health care leaders can model where to put new vaccination sites, taking into account travel time, social vulnerability, the number of unvaccinated people in an area, and changes in vaccine confidence. 

Earlier this year, Weintraub talked with Canaan, an early-stage venture capital firm, about the role of innovation during the pandemic and doing what it takes to solve problems despite unimaginable obstacles. 

Weintraub said, “In February of 2020, I said out loud we need billions of doses of this vaccine produced in the next 12 months, and that was brushed aside. The assumption was we would have no [vaccine] supply within the calendar year. It's very compelling to see entrepreneurs rise to this challenge and find solutions and the [health care] ecosystem flourish in the midst of the disruption.”  

At a recent Harvard School of Public Health press conference, Weintraub talked about health inequities uncovered by the pandemic that still persist today. She said, “As a vaccinator, I noticed the sense of stress that folks come to the vaccination site with. This is in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic where people have not had access to providers or they had to establish relationships via telemedicine with someone new. How do [we] lower the fence today, improve confidence in the vaccine and protect us all from the variants and circulation? Advancing vaccine equity is a key strategy to limit viral transmission and mitigate the consequences of this global pandemic.”