by Jim Haigh, Keep Me Posted North America
“Unprecedented” and “an historic challenge” are some of the terms medical experts use to describe the efforts to get COVID-19 vaccines into the arms of entire populations as quickly as possible. The science was its own miracle, and the extreme temperature-controlled logistics from manufacturers to local vaccination sites is a marvel in progress that continues to be fine-tuned.
As demand dwarfs current supply, many communities are experiencing challenges planning, communicating and executing this critical mission, which is unlike any they’ve ever attempted. Failures and frustrations are being learned from. Pathways to success are being shared, and while some solutions are scaling, there are no one-size-fits-all approaches for diverse populations and geographies.
This is particularly true of many best-intentioned outreach efforts to groups who are eligible for the precious vaccines as they become locally available. At this early stage of the mass vaccine rollout, the bulk of communications about eligibility, local access and scheduling is happening only online. Vaccine supplies are being dispensed as quickly as local health partners receive them, even as alarms are sounding about vulnerable populations having serious challenges accessing critical communications that allow them to secure their lifesaving medicine.
While there are merits to digital approaches, we are past the point where digital-only is acceptable for communicating vaccine eligibility, availability and scheduling appointments. Enormous populations do not have broadband availability or affordable access, do not have the devices, nor have the facility to navigate obstacle courses of websites and apps. But as some communities begin to recognize these realities and begin to provide offline options like phone numbers to call and humans to talk to, others are rushing to build even more websites and apps.
To conquer COVID-19, we need to bridge the massive digital divide with practical and inclusive solutions. Thankfully, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Paper and mail are a time-tested way to deliver important information to vulnerable and disadvantaged populations, and forward- thinking organizations are charging ahead with paper communications related to vaccines.
Letters delivered by the U.S. Postal Service are informing those who served in our military of their eligibility, and how and where to schedule and receive their vaccines, because the Veterans Administration established inclusive communications policies.1
Mailed invitations for vaccine appointments are being sent to patients of the Mayo Clinic as soon as they are eligible,2 and with regional health systems like Essentia Health based in North Dakota3 and DuPage Medical Group4 serving populations surrounding Chicago doing similar off-line outreach, more case studies in bridging the digital vaccine divide will be cataloged, studied and replicated. The reason given for mailing paper correspondence about the vaccine rollout, informing of eligibility status and opportunities to get vaccinated: we want to make sure nobody falls through the cracks.
It is interesting that other tech savvy nations have built their communications hierarchy shaped like pyramids grounded on the most accessible communications foundations. Japan is mailing vaccination tickets with unique QR Codes to its citizens, with options to reserve their vaccines with a phone call or form to complete online.5 Meanwhile, the United Kingdom and Scotland are mailing essential vaccine information, including RSVPs to get life saving jabs in their arms, working with experts on physical communications design that grabs attention.6,7
We cannot allow our friends, neighbors and loved ones who are digitally disadvantaged to fall through the cracks as the vaccine rollout expands. Communication and process need to catch up with the physical realities. One more website or app is not going to help the disconnected. Paper and mail can and should play a critical role in making vaccine access available to all.