After nearly a year of the unprecedented use of the word “unprecedented,” the end of the Covid-19 pandemic may be in sight. Maybe. In the past month, the US has greenlit a jointly developed Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that proven 95% effective against the Covid-19 disease, with a potential 2nd vaccine shortly on its heels. These developments come at a critical time when the US and the world are facing the pandemic at the beginning of winter, the time when most people are susceptible to disease. Already, countries and states are seeing a resurgence of hospitalizations and deaths, promptly the US to employ Operation Warp Speed to get hundreds of thousands of vaccines to where they are needed most at – you guessed it – warp speed.
A tall task for a government that struggled severely with managing an overflow of mail-in ballots just a month ago, Operation Warp Speed will need to operate nearly perfectly to achieve its goal of 300 million vaccines produced and distributed by early 2021. However, Operation Warp Speed has 3 keys benefits that the US Postal Office didn’t: bipartisan support, more than $16 billion in funding, and a well-trained military force to streamline the process. With these resources, Operation Warp Speed could very well meet its target of production and distribution. The question then becomes what happens if they succeed?
While the vaccine will then be distributed across the country, the actual inoculation of Americans will not match the same pace of distribution. To say nothing of the substantial anti-vaccine community within the US, the rollout of the vaccine will inevitably happen in phases with the most at risk communities like healthcare workers and the elderly receiving the first wave, followed by the majority of Americans over the preceding months. My objective is not to critique how the US chooses who to prioritize or demand an unobtainable goal of complete vaccination of the American population by spring. Instead, I seek to promote dialogue about the more intangible difficulties of the Covid-19 vaccine that will extend the effects of this pandemic well beyond what hope the vaccine may offer.
Since it began, Covid-19 has cost the US economy an estimated $16 trillion – 4x more than the Great Depression. Despite multiple stimulus packages, thousands of businesses have failed, and millions more are limping by through shutdowns. The vaccine offers the possibility of returning to normalcy, at least to an extent. However, the US needs to decide now how it will prioritize reopening with the advent of the vaccine. Will it try to save businesses now that there is option for immunity or wait until near 100% adoption before restarting the economy?
One possible solution is that individuals who receive the vaccine should be able to return to normal operation while those who abstain must continue to observe social distancing and hygiene monitoring protocols. This method however proves near impossible to implement because of a long-standing pillar of US healthcare – HIPAA. HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) mandates that protected health information, like vaccine immunizations, cannot be disclosed without permission of the individual except for “public health activities…for the disclosure to a public health authority.” While this makes it possible for hospitals and schools to review health records, it is not a feasible solution for a majority of businesses to request proof of individual health records as they do not qualify as a public health authority.
Due to this restriction, HIPAA has become a major impediment for businesses to act upon the newly available Covid-19 vaccine. These companies will need to maintain the much more stringent safety requirement put in place over the last few months, and some may need to even shut down again as the vaccine comes too late to prevent a deadly winter wave of cases. Unlike Wall Street, who has already celebrated the adoption of the vaccine with quickly rising stock values, most American businesses will still need to hibernate through the next few months and pray that 2021 will be slightly less “unprecedented.”