How mapping technology and location intelligence will help COVID-19 vaccine distribution

As the COVID-19 virus continues to rage, the announcement of potentially safe and effective vaccines from companies like Moderna and Pfizer brings some hope.

A key challenge will be how to distribute the vaccine effectively, and geographic information system (GIS) mapping software and location intelligence will play a key role in this effort, experts say.

Location intelligence involves analyzing geospatial data to inform predictions and decision-making.

Carlton County, Minnesota, has been preparing for COVID-19 vaccine distribution by testing location intelligence technology during this fall’s flu vaccine rollout. The county, which has a population of 35,000 and is located in the northeast corner of Minnesota, held a drive-thru flu vaccine clinic from Sept. 24-26 during which it vaccinated about 700 people. With GIS mapping software and location intelligence data, Carlton County vaccinated three times as many people with a flu shot than in previous years, according to Esri, a vendor that offers GIS mapping and location intelligence software.

GIS mapping software is not new. In fact, the technology has been around for more than 50 years. However, computerized mapping software has been used in healthcare for 25 years, according to Este Geraghty, M.D., chief medical officer and health solutions director at Esri.

RELATED: Azar expects 40M COVID-19 vaccine doses ready to distribute by end of December

Carlton County’s test run for vaccine distribution

As a test run for COVID-19 vaccines, Carlton County used Esri’s ArcGIS Survey123 data collection application to build an online site to allow residents to preregister for flu vaccines. The county sent a preregistration link with information about the clinic. When people preregistered, they were able to get in and out of the clinic in less than four minutes, Ali Mueller, public health and human services emergency preparedness coordinator for Carlton County, told Fierce Healthcare.

Dashboard views in the Esri software allowed Carlton County to track the flow of people at the flu vaccine clinic. They could analyze the traffic patterns of who comes in the morning, during lunchtime or after work. The registration data from the Survey123 tool also allowed the county to manage staffing needs.

“When people show up on-site, they can see the traffic flow, if it's one line, two lines,” said Jared Hovi, GIS coordinator for Carlton County, in an interview. “We can have that all established in a digital format, so people know where to go, they know what to expect before they get there.”

With the increased demand for COVID-19 vaccines, state governments like Carlton County's will need to track all the hospitals, retail pharmacies, provider clinics and urgent centers where the vaccine will be administered using a vaccine finder tool from companies like Esri.

Carlton County Minnesota survey dashboard (Esri)

“The vaccine locator that we can provide basically allows people to put in their current location or have it sensed by their smartphone if they're using their smartphone with the location on,” Geraghty said.

When the vaccine gets distributed, local governments will prioritize essential people like healthcare workers. Government agencies and healthcare institutions will use GIS mapping to locate these front-line workers. After first responders and healthcare professionals, more vulnerable populations like the elderly will receive the vaccine.

Mapping tools help authorities locate nursing homes where people will get prioritized to receive the vaccine. GIS mapping software also identifies areas that are hard to reach, like rural areas or tribal communities, Geraghty said.

RELATED: Pfizer aims to ship COVID-19 vaccine doses 'within hours' of regulatory nods, CEO says. Will a 'race to regulate' ensue?

“We’ll need mobile outreach teams, and that's another need for location intelligence,” Geraghty said. “How do you route your mobile vaccination clinic in ways that get to those populations in need? It's all about determining your matches, finding your gaps and then mitigating those gaps with smarter decisions.”

The Esri software will also help users track where people should go for a second dose of a certain vaccine. People will need to stick with the same vaccine they took for a first dose, Geraghty noted.

Meanwhile, the Esri ArcGIS Hub community engagement platform helps government agencies, academic institutions and nonprofit groups communicate with a population. Government officials and healthcare professionals could use ArcGIS Hub to convince people to overcome vaccine hesitancy, according to Geraghty. She added that cities can use location intelligence along with demographic and behavioral information to understand what’s important to a community.

“You have to meet people where they are and give the information they need in the way that they want to receive it, and location intelligence can help you do that, too,” Geraghty said.

RELATED: Nearly half of patients say they'd feel safest getting COVID-19 vaccine at doctor's office: survey

Planning for a vaccine rollout

Survey123 will help Carlton County plan the locations of where to administer the vaccine. Because the Pfizer vaccine requires ultracold storage at minus 70 degrees Celsius, location intelligence can be valuable in determining locations that can store this product. In comparison, Moderna’s vaccine must be stored at a temperature of 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hovi noted that mapping and planning provide this crucial intelligence on where these vaccines with strict storage requirements need to go and how many doses the population will need.

“We're in the planning phases,” Hovi said. “Things change week to week, day to day, as we learn things in the news and more information is provided to the county.”

Pfizer plans to file for an emergency FDA authorization today. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said 40 million vaccine doses will be available by the end of December pending FDA authorization.