Jan 21, 2021 - Economy & Business

COVID-19 vaccine: Private companies step in to fill logistics vacuum

Illustration of a person handing a vaccine syringe to an older person

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Last year we wrote several times about how VC-backed companies were helping to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccine development and innovative testing solutions. Now the same thing is happening when it comes to vaccinations, a process beset by logistics and planning problems since the jump.

Driving the news: Carbon Health, a tech-enabled healthcare startup that recently raised $100 million in Series C funding, is now the primary back-end for vaccinations in the City of Los Angeles, including a massive drive-up program that just launched in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium.

Backstory: L.A. wasn't planning to use Carbon Health for vaccinating its four million residents. Instead, it launched with PrepMod, an online clinic management and appointment scheduling system originally created by Maryland public health departments, while also leveraging pharmacy chains.

  • Things didn't go as smoothly as planned, for a while host of reasons. The main one, however, was that none of the existing software or infrastructure was really set up or easily adapted for the largest mass vaccination in American history. Several websites crashed, including in Carbon Health's home base of San Francisco.
  • Carbon Health, meanwhile, had begun working on its system last summer anticipating many of the forthcoming complexities.
  • Its software included not only appointment scheduling, but also eligibility screening, wait-listing for ineligible patients, clinical pre-screening and insurance information collection (everyone can get vaccines for free, but insured patients can help save money for strapped local governments).
  • L.A. earlier this month turned over much of its process to Carbon Health, with what basically amounts to a handshake agreement.

"L.A. was really more tech-savvy than almost any other city in identifying early that the software platform was not going to work well," says Eren Bali, the Carbon Health co-founder and CEO who previously co-founded and led Udemy. "We made our official presentation on Jan. 9 and, to their credit, they immediately understood the tech and we went live one day later."

  • Bali adds that several other large cities have reached out in the past week, and that new agreements are imminent.
  • He also acknowledges that Carbon Health, while not being directly paid by LA, believes it can at least break even via insured patients.
  • Right now he says that around 80% of his employees are dedicated to vaccination efforts, including around 15 people on-site at Dodger Stadium (he believes on-site personnel requirements will be lower elsewhere, now that Carbon thinks the inaugural experience helped it devise a “playbook”).

Carbon Health isn't alone: Some other, older tech companies also are being leveraged for vaccination. Florida officials, for example, have used Eventbrite (despite some issues with seniors mistakenly creating new vaccination events, which the company is monitoring and removing). ZocDoc is helping with scheduling in New York City. Lyft and Amazon have both reached out to the Biden administration, offering to aid with transportation and delivery logistics.

The bottom line: There will be a lot of future investigations into federal and state government failures related to vaccinations, as there should be. In the meantime, though, at least some companies are stepping into the breach.

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