By MIKE MAGEE
In the wake of Pearl Harbor, FDR found our nation ill-prepared for war. He lacked manpower and tools. In response, he took deliberative action with the support of Congress, drafting soldiers and redirecting supply chains toward weapons of war. Compliance was requested, then demanded. Those industries that served, including Pfizer with penicillin production, benefited in the short and long-term.
FDR not only harnessed the power of industry and science, and ramped up the military, but also asked every family and every community to participate in the war effort. Community volunteering soared, and sacrifice for the public good was the rule, not the exception.
One idea was “victory gardens”, planted in back yards, to allow stressed food manufacturers the ability to focus on meeting the demand to “feed the troops.” These gardens in 1943 provided 1/3 of all the vegetables consumed in the states that year.
President Biden now finds himself in a similar predicament – the need to redirect our vast industrial productive capacity while mobilizing our citizens to both support and participate in vaccination efforts.
Our President and his team understand that interventional and privatized high science is of little avail if that science (in this case vaccines) is unable – by limited supply or logistic ineptitude or the absence of public trust – to find it’s way efficiently and quickly into the arms of our citizens.
Shortages of vaccine supply clearly have placed the emphasis on equitable distribution. But in the end, the secondary unintended negative impact has been profound. A legitimate desire to prioritize diverse and vulnerable populations, and protect our hospitals from being overwhelmed by sick and dying patients, has been translated into an early response that is overly medicalized and militarized.
In the push toward equity and over-concern with group gatherings, many states have relied on complex computer based scheduling and stadium like drive-up sites previously used as testing locations.
The emergence of potentially lethal strains has now made it clear that we are in a race. We need to get to herd immunity before the new virus strains have enough leisure time to become even more deadly. This means a major shift toward simple, local, walk-up mass immunization as we did for polio vaccination in the 1950s.
Public health leaders are rightly proud of their well-intentioned algorithms to assure equitable distribution of limited vaccine supply. Their military partners should be recognized as well for maintaining an orderly flow of vehicles and supply and approved individuals with minimal wastage of limited vaccine. But complexity carries its own inequities and is ill suited to the wartime challenge we now face.
What is now more than obvious is that we need a simple vast political campaign to reach a population 10-fold larger in 1/10th the time. This requires three elements:
1. Use of local, neighborhood vaccination sites. Schools are a logical local brick and mortar choice because they are viewed as a community resource, are accessible in every community across America, and have been proven safe even during the pandemic as the Nov. 3rd voting proved out.
2. Our campaign must reinforce vaccine acceptance. The best way to accomplish this is to include parents of school children (doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, EMTs) as volunteer providers of the injections. This was instrumental in the polio campaign. Their inclusion is not about manpower so much, but rather as a signal that this is a community-wide and community-based effort enjoys strong family and community support.
3. Demand must now drive supply. That is to say that the Pfizer’s of the world must voluntarily or through the Biden Administration’s use of the Defense Production Act extend patent utilization to partners to massively expand production overnight.
The value of organized participation – whether it be Pfizer penicillin or “victory gardens” in 1943 – extended well beyond pills and food. The true value was the sense of inclusion and solidarity, the singularity of focus on speed, sacrifice, and success. We face a similar challenge, and with President Biden, must rise to the occasion.
Mike Magee, MD is a Medical Historian and Health Economist and author of “Code Blue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex.“