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BARBER SHOT

Covid-19 vaccines could be distributed through churches, beauty salons, and poultry farms

A vaccine trials' volunteer is injected with a vaccine in a South African trial.
Reuters/ Siphiwe Sibeko
A beauty treatment?
Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

As beauty salons reopen across the US, they may eventually be able to offer mani-pedi-vaccine combos. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is weighing beauty salons and other community gathering points as potential distribution sites for Covid-19 vaccines.

Though the CDC has told states to be ready to distribute a potential vaccine by late October, distribution logistics are still being worked out. Government experts are debating who should be first in line to receive a vaccine; once that’s decided, the government will need to plan how to deliver shots to those who need them first. All options are on the table.

“If ACIP [Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices] tells us we want us particularly to prioritize minority groups, we’d be looking to see where we could best access those groups,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said at an ACIP meeting in June. “And that might be through federally qualified health centers or…maybe it’s in beauty salons or places where people tend to congregate.” Messonnier also said she could see vaccines being available at poultry plants to help reach essential workers.

The CDC hasn’t provided further details of specific locations where vaccines could be available, but did publish guidance on creating temporary coronavirus vaccine clinics at off-site locations. CDC vaccination distribution plans could also involve curbside clinics, mobile outreach units, or home visits. Separate CDC guidance references churches among the possible off-site clinic sites.

It makes sense to adapt distribution to a community’s needs, says Kristen Ehresmann, director of infectious disease epidemiology, prevention, and control at Minnesota Department of Health. Vaccines could also be available at care homes or offices, she says: “The bottom line is, it’s not unusual if it will meet the needs of the community.”

Though the US has never distributed vaccines at beauty parlors before, the CDC has used barber shops to spread awareness about HIV prevention, under a program called “Cut for Life.” It can be valuable to go outside typical healthcare centers to reach those who are wary of US healthcare, says Ehresmann. “For many populations of color, they’ve experienced historical trauma as it relates to medical treatments and there’s very much a distrust of government,” she says. “If we’re going to be successful, we have to go to where they are and where they’re comfortable and work with their trusted leaders.”

The bottom line is, it’s not unusual if it will meet the needs of the community.

Broadly speaking, vaccine distribution works according to what health policy experts call a “pull or push” model, says Tinglong Dai, professor of operations management and business analytics at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. US flu vaccines are typically distributed by the pull method, meaning healthcare providers request the number of vaccines they need according to patient demand.

But coronavirus vaccine distribution will be nationally coordinated, with a centralized distribution system that makes the push method more viable, says Dai, who works on influenza vaccine supply chains. The public sector can actively bring the vaccine to those in need, rather than waiting for people to seek them out. So far, the government has contracted pharmaceutical distribution company McKesson to handle logistics. The company will directly provide shots to vaccination sites under direction from the CDC.

Using community-based distribution locations does bring added challenges. Trained vaccinators may have to travel to these locations to deliver the shots, creating added transport logistics. And as these locations won’t have appropriate storage facilities, vaccines will have to be ferried back and forth on a daily basis.

There’s still no definitive agreement on how various at-risk demographics should be prioritized for Covid-19 vaccines, so it’s unclear which locations could be most useful. The very first recipients, at least, are likely to be straightforward: Front-line healthcare workers are widely expected to get the vaccine first, and can access vaccines from the hospitals where they work.

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