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Washington State Partners With Starbucks, Microsoft, Costco On Vaccine Efforts

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As the federal government institutes new plans to expand vaccination efforts, states are ramping up delivery of the shots by partnering with major corporations. In Washington state, that means Starbucks. Will Stone reports.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Getting a life-saving shot during a global pandemic is never going to be quite like ordering your morning cup of coffee. And Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson isn't proposing that his stores suddenly become vaccine clinics.

KEVIN JOHNSON: We are not a health care company, but Starbucks does operate 33,000 stores at scale.

STONE: And a lot goes into making those stores efficient and customer-friendly. The company is loaning Washington state a team of experts to help it avoid bottlenecks, cut down on wasted time, manage the flow of people.

JOHNSON: Vaccination centers that amplify the comfort, care and safety of every person.

STONE: Meanwhile, Microsoft is offering help running the online vaccine dashboard, and Costco with logistics of delivering the shots. Washington Governor Jay Inslee compares it to the private sector stepping up during World War II.

JAY INSLEE: And right now, we can help these private companies be the arsenals for this vaccine.

STONE: Like many states, Washington is struggling to get its doses into people's arms.

ALISON BUTTENHEIM: We aren't always so kind of innovative and nimble in public health. And this is the moment where we need that.

STONE: Alison Buttenheim is a vaccine expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

BUTTENHEIM: We need innovation, and we need states trying different things and kind of reporting back to all of us. This is how the Starbucks thing worked. If you got Dunkin' Donuts in Massachusetts, try that.

STONE: In North Carolina, Honeywell is helping run vaccination sites at its NFL stadium and NASCAR track. Dr. Scott Rissmiller of Atrium Health, also part of the partnership, says they need logistical help.

SCOTT RISSMILLER: It allows us as the health care system to focus on getting the shots in the arms and making sure people are tolerating it.

STONE: Of course, not everything can be outsourced to the private sector. There's reporting of sensitive personal information, and Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins University says a big limiting factor could be the actual vaccinators.

JENNIFER NUZZO: This isn't just handing somebody a package. This is a clinical encounter. And that's just not something that a layperson can do.

STONE: State efforts to streamline vaccination come as demand is far outstripping supply. The websites for appointments are crashing. People are confused about how to sign up or why they can't get a spot yet. Nuzzo says this is partly because the Trump administration set an unrealistic goal from the get-go.

NUZZO: The worry that I have is that if we create expectations for how quickly people can get vaccinated and then don't deliver, people will become perhaps jaded or disappointed or, worse, mistrustful of vaccination efforts.

STONE: And states like Washington, where now anyone over 65 is eligible to get a shot, need to convey clearly to millions of people, we don't actually have enough for everyone yet. States still aren't getting much advance notice of how many doses they'll get. Seattle area grocery store cashier Wil Peterson hears this confusion at his work.

WIL PETERSON: We just amongst each other have heard, oh, yeah, they're going to be getting to us sometime. I heard February. So, you know, there's a lot of rumors and things.

STONE: Peterson, who's in his 50s, is very plugged in to his union, so it's easier to stay up to date. Still, he's moderating his expectations after hearing from a friend who tried to sign up this week.

PETERSON: But the site had crashed. And so I'm kind of braced for maybe that happening when I try to do it, but I'm hoping that won't be the case.

STONE: After months of dealing with customers who refuse to wear masks, a few glitches will not stop him from getting his shot. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

KELLY: And this story is from NPR's partnership with Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.