2022 COVID-19 Response

Dr. Amanda Cohn, Anita Patel, Dr. David Fitter and the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force

Designed and implemented the plan to distribute hundreds of millions of lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines to states, localities and pharmacies nationwide while providing critical health information to the public.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stood up its COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force in mid-2020, the group faced the daunting task of designing a plan to distribute potential vaccines and communicate their importance. This was long before it was clear when vaccines would be available, who would get them, in what quantity and under what conditions. 

Over the following months, Anita Patel, Pharm.D., worked on the vaccine task force and later to design and oversee the distribution plan. Dr. Amanda Cohn led the advisory committee that helped the CDC determine how and when to recommend health care providers administer the vaccines, while Dr. David Fitter headed the task force during the pivotal early months of the vaccine distribution and later worked on addressing global pandemic response efforts with international partners. 

“This work has saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” said Dr. Barbara Mahon, a CDC colleague who now oversees the agency’s COVID-19 response. “It’s a truly unprecedented and amazing accomplishment, and without the three of them and the teams they led, it wouldn’t have happened.” 

Thanks to the efforts of the CDC’s task force—which at its peak had more than 700 full-time members and, overall, benefited from the work of more than 1,500 people—more than 570 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the United States. This occurred with regular public communication and new levels of data-sharing among local, state and federal levels about safety issues, and strategies to reach new populations approved for vaccination. 

“This work was all in the interest of having as many ways as possible to get people vaccinated,” said Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Research and Evaluation at the Food and Drug Administration and a 2021 Service to America Medals finalist. 

While public health departments were a cornerstone of the distribution plan, they were most effective in communities with strong public health systems. Patel also stood up a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership with community and national pharmacies. That was critical for quickly ramping up vaccine availability in places where public health systems faced tremendous challenges in administering vaccines at the rate needed to keep up with demand—often in rural or under-resourced areas—enabling those communities to rely on pharmacies to help serve the public need.  

“The federal-pharmacy partnership expanded the public health infrastructure of the U.S. by threefold in about two days,” said Garner Soltes, a partner at Boston Consulting Group who advised the task force. 

“More than 90% of the U.S. population lives within a five-mile radius of a pharmacy, which had unique reach and ability to provide access to COVID-19 vaccines and support broad vaccination efforts,” Patel said. “We’ve never had that in the vaccination space before.” 

Robert Johnson, a division director at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, said, “If you got your vaccine in a pharmacy, it’s because of the work Anita Patel did.” 

Meanwhile, Cohn worked to ensure that health departments were armed with the latest information about the vaccine timeline, that the public could readily access the CDC’s vaccine information, and that government agencies were prepared to address vaccine hesitancy. Once the FDA started granting emergency use authorizations for vaccines, she prepared her panel, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, to review and make a recommendation for usage within hours instead of weeks, ensuring there was no delay in availability and without cutting any corners on safety. 

“Without the information ACIP provided, I think we would have gone backward a couple of times, particularly with the booster campaign,” Marks said. “They’ve worked to take a lot of disparate information, make it accessible and then brought that data not just to government advisors but to the public.” 

That work went hand-in-hand with efforts Fitter oversaw to ready public health departments on everything from managing vaccine appointments and the need to store three different vaccines at three different temperatures to ensuring that vaccines could be delivered to remote places as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, right down to how and in what quantity the vaccines were packed. 

Another task force innovation under Fitter and Patel’s leadership was the creation of a new data-sharing effort, enabling the CDC to see, nearly in real-time, how the vaccination campaign was unfolding in communities down to the ZIP code level. Using that data, the CDC was able to tell local agencies and pharmacies when they needed to change their strategies or market differently to reach communities of color and lower-income groups, or to quickly shift their distribution strategy. 

Patel credits the data-sharing effort with maximizing the ability of the CDC and its partners to overcome significant vaccine hesitancy and ensure broader availability of vaccines than would have otherwise been possible. 

“Dr. Fitter was instrumental in dealing with how to make sure that we distributed vaccine equitably to all the different parts of the country and to all different socioeconomic groups,” Marks said. 

Cohn said, “We didn’t do this alone. We worked with our state and local partners, along with thousands of other stakeholders to get COVID-19 vaccines to anyone and everyone who wanted them.” 

“A lot of times, when public health works, you don’t hear about it, and that’s the right way,” Fitter said. “But it was so impressive to see the whole public health community coming together to make this work as smoothly as it did.”