Australian leaders are being urged to address the technology gap that will be critical in ensuring the success of a nationally coordinated COVID-19 vaccine distribution program.

With a COVID-19 vaccine rollout expected to begin in Australia as soon as March next year, a complex national plan will be required to effectively distribute the vaccine throughout the country.

Dr Ori Gudes from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Medicine School of Population Health said the nation’s state and federal health agencies needed to address the lack of national coordination and data sharing that was evident at the pandemic’s onset and throughout 2020.

“The logistical challenges in distributing a vaccine to millions of Australians in a prioritised process from a range of vaccination facilities will be immense,” Dr Gudes said.

“Identifying facilities capable of storing and distributing the vaccine, prioritising populations, identifying gaps and formulating alternative distribution options, implementing a vaccine administration and inventory system and providing transparent communication to the public will be critical for success.

“Government and healthcare leaders – as well as institutions such as the Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organisation – relied on Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to map cases, identify vulnerable communities and manage response to the initial outbreaks by applying spatial modelling techniques to continuously analyse the situation.

“As Australia now focusses on distributing a vaccine, the same technology will be pivotal in planning and managing the immunisation program in a functional and nationally coordinated manner.”

Esri Australia Group Managing Director Brett Bundock said the next three months is a crucial time for health authorities to develop an effective vaccine distribution plan.

“Establishing the correct infrastructure for sharing data needs to be a national priority,” Mr Bundock said.

“For this country’s leaders, the lessons learned during the pandemic have been hard and public and I expect it will remain tough for them while they operate without a single, holistic, real-time view of the crisis.

“We have the data and technology to deliver a border-free view of the complexities connected to COVID-19; the question is: what will it take for governments to eradicate the data silos hamstringing their efforts?

“With the next challenge being vaccine distribution, leaders must decide whether they continue to tolerate being partially informed – forcing a ‘trial and error’ approach – or mobilise their data and technology assets for an informed roll-out.”

Esri Global Chief Medical Officer Dr Este Geraghty, who is already supporting global health agencies in their vaccine distribution planning, said the work to safely develop and plan immunisation around the world will require the most complex global vaccination campaign in history.

“Access to detailed, real-time data and information will be critical in planning for the most effective deployment of each nation’s assets,” Dr Geraghty said.

“We know one of the key challenges is that two of the three leading vaccine candidates require cold storage, with one requiring ultra-cold storage that is usually only available at large hospitals, scientific research facilities, and scant other venues. Tracking the type and quantity of vaccines available at those venues for distribution will be a major challenge.

“As we move towards broader vaccination, GIS technology can identify gaps where populations don't have a facility that's nearby and equipped to administer the vaccine. Location intelligence can help identify where to place new vaccine venues, including temporary drive-through or mobile clinics, to serve remote, hard-to-reach populations in Australia.

“Ultimately it will be critical to match facility capacity, vaccine supply, and proximity to priority populations to ensure all needs are met and a geographic perspective with spatial analysis capabilities can solve that on-the-fly.”

Dr Gudes said developing public-facing maps and dashboards showing the progress and status of vaccine efforts would be critical to building community trust in the vaccine and its distribution.

“As vaccines are distributed, communities will need to know how well each facility is doing in executing the plan, monitor whether their populations are experiencing adverse effects, track the proportion of the community that has been vaccinated – and identify clusters of vaccine resistance,” he said.

“Providing a user-friendly map-based view of vaccine distribution efforts will facilitate real-time awareness of the situation at hand and provide absolute transparency over the process – for members of the community and health authorities alike.

“Early transparency will inspire trust and provide critical information about how and why vaccination resources are allocated in each community.”

To learn more about how GIS technology can help with vaccine distribution, visit esriaustralia.com.au/gis-in-health

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