John Gaede, Information Services Director, Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls, Ore.

Aug 04 2021

Behind the Mass Vaccination Effort: How Providers Adapted Quickly

Healthcare organizations across the U.S. turned to their IT teams to stand up systems and processes during the mass campaign to vaccinate people against COVID-19.

Several years before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the U.S., a community hospital in rural Oregon had just put the finishing touches on an IT upgrade. Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls “is truly a stand-alone facility,” says John Gaede, director of information systems.

For nearly 100 miles in every direction, there’s not another hospital to be found. Sky Lakes couldn’t have known it in 2018, but its new infrastructure would prove essential in 2021 as it led the charge to vaccinate the south central Oregon and Northern California region’s population against COVID-19.

“It was because of that project that we were able to stand up a vaccine clinic that could support the needs of our community in a matter of days,” Gaede says.

With key partnerships and strategic planning, health systems across the country were able to strengthen their technological infrastructure and raise mass COVID-19 vaccination clinics during this historical undertaking.

For Sky Lakes, its main IT addition from the initiative was a hyperconverged infrastructure solution, Cisco HyperFlex. The system consolidated its previous layout of separate but integrated compute, storage and networking tiers into one scalable platform, Gaede says.

Most important, it included Cisco collaboration solutions, which meant that during the pandemic, Sky Lakes had what it needed to launch a vaccine scheduling call center. “It was 5 p.m. on a Friday when I was asked to get that up and running by Monday,” he says.

Getting a Clinic to ‘Run Like Clockwork’

Sky Lakes’ rush had to do with vaccine distribution logistics: The state would be shipping doses that week. It also had to do with the other tasks ahead, such as the work needed to set up a location where patients could be registered and shots administered.

“Everything had to run like clockwork,” Gaede says, explaining how the health system chose a spacious local community center as the venue for its vaccination clinic. “Looking back, we were really lucky we had the partnerships to make it happen.”

Working closely with Cisco, Sky Lakes quickly launched a Webex Contact Center for patient scheduling and set up a wireless network at the field site for connecting to the hospital’s electronic medical records system. Next, it turned to Stanley Healthcare, a company the hospital had previously relied on for its AeroScout real-time tracking system.

READ MORE: What's next for telehealth beyond the pandemic?

Just before the health emergency, Gaede says, Sky Lakes had integrated AeroScout with a management tool called Cisco DNA Spaces, used primarily for asset management but also for tasks such as temperature monitoring to ensure safe storage of pharmaceuticals.

“We told Stanley we needed their ultralow-temperature probes for monitoring the vaccines,” he says. “They shipped them out, and we had them ready to go by the time we opened the clinic.”

In the end, Gaede says his team readily met its Monday call center deadline. Sky Lakes didn’t miss a beat between receiving its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines from the state and administering the first dose to a patient. Soon, the health system was seeing several thousand calls per day, and its mass vaccination campaign was underway.

“We just tried to make the process as easy as possible for the community,” he says of the health system’s efforts.

“We still have a long way to go,” Gaede adds, noting that the region’s COVID-19 cases were climbing as of June, “but we’re glad we were able to get off to a good start.”

The ‘Backbone’ of Vaccine Delivery

As the vaccine rollout across the U.S. gathered momentum earlier this year, Gaede’s team at Sky Lakes was hardly alone in its efforts. Hospital IT departments everywhere were enlisted for the rollout because they had the tools and technological know-how to succeed in an operation of this scale.

At UCHealth in Colorado, vaccination delivery models have ranged from community clinics to a drive-thru mass vaccination site. The organization knew from the start that technology and innovation would play key roles in the campaign.

“The approach we took was to embed technology in every single step of the process, and then we used every person we had available to the highest level of their capability,” says Dr. Richard Zane, chief innovation officer at UCHealth in Aurora, Colo.

With that in mind, Zane says, the “backbone” of the vaccination program included its EMR system, IT professionals and his team at the UCHealth CARE Innovation Center.

Richard Zane
The approach we took was to embed technology in every single step of the process, and then we used every person we had available to the highest level of their scope and capability.”

Dr. Richard Zane Chief Innovation Officer, UCHealth

“One of our guiding principles was that we’d primarily use our portal for patient communication and scheduling,” he says. “We also decided that for two-dose vaccines, you had to schedule your second dose at the same time you scheduled your first appointment.”

For UCHealth’s mass vaccination clinic at Coors Field in Denver, which it first used in a pilot event Jan. 24, the system built mobile workstations containing laptop computers and smartphones equipped with the EMR’s mobile app. With Cisco Meraki access points providing wireless connectivity to the UCHealth network and a backup connection available through Verizon Jetpack Wi-Fi hotspots, clinicians at the site could quickly register patients and administer shots as they rolled through in their cars.

At the peak of the UCHealth vaccination effort, the system delivered nearly 45,000 doses per week to patients across all of its clinics, Zane says. As of June, that number had dropped to about 15,000 doses, but it could easily ramp up efforts if demand for vaccinations increases again.

“Including the time involved with registration, we’ve been able to get a vaccine in an arm in about six minutes,” Zane says. “We’ve done that by being incredibly deliberate about how we use technology to guide our processes.”

Providing Digital Access to Patients

MedStar Health, which serves the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area, has also leaned on an array of digital tools to vaccinate its patient population.

“The focus for us has been all about access and how we can use technology to facilitate it,” says John Lock, MedStar Health’s vice president and chief digital transformation officer.

Before the pandemic, Lock says, MedStar Health teams, including IT, had been developing a digital experience for patients to directly interface with its EMR and scheduling platforms. When the health system learned that the COVID-19 vaccines would soon become available, that project went into overdrive.

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“We had some people working 24 hours a day, but they got it to market, and they did it in two weeks,” he says.

That effort paid off, and by mid-May the organization announced it had delivered 10,000 vaccine doses at one facility alone. The first person to use the new system to schedule a shot was more than 100 years old, Lock adds.

“I think what we learned,” he says, “is that when we work across the enterprise and bring skilled teams together, we can accomplish extraordinary things in a very short time.”

Photography by Jay Fram