How Starbucks Is Helping with Washington’s COVID Vaccine Rollout

On Monday, February 18, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a massive plan to ramp up the distribution and administration of COVID-19 vaccines in the state. Effective immediately, all Washingtonians 65 and older will be eligible to receive the shot, and the governor set a goal of inoculating 45,000 people per day, which would nearly triple its current pace. Washington had previously prioritized health care workers and those in long-term care facilities in its vaccine plan, but the federal government recently urged all states to expand the pool to those 65 years and older. Inslee wasn’t clear on exactly when he wanted to hit the new marks for daily inoculations, but in order to make significant strides, he said public-private partnerships would be a key part of the effort — and that includes calling on Starbucks.

The coffee giant’s role in helping its home state with vaccinations seems primarily on the logistical side. Basically, Starbucks will look for ways to make the inoculation process go more smoothly and efficiently at various sites, and consult on how potential solutions can be applied. Most of this work will come from Starbucks’s Tryer Center innovation lab, a 20,000-foot facility on the bottom floor of its Seattle-based headquarters. Usually, the lab is where the company plans out new menu items and store designs, but it’s now being used partly as a mock vaccination site. Based on feedback from health care workers and first-hand observations at local clinics, researchers at Tryer are trying to figure out what can be improved about the current vaccine administration process.

For instance, per the company’s official blog, one problem the Starbucks team is trying to address is bottlenecks at vaccination sites. Those who’ve received a shot usually must remain in an observation area for 15 minutes afterwards to monitor any potential side effects, but people may end up losing track of time, delaying other vaccinations, according to the feedback Starbucks researchers received. So a potential fix proposed by the Tryer Center team would be to give people a slip of paper that indicates the exact time of their shot and having clocks placed more prominently in waiting areas, so that those who are in the observation area will be more cognizant of how long they’ve been there. Starbucks is also creating signs with symbols instead of words to simplify the process and avoid translation issues, as well as a guide with clear directions for those first arriving at clinics who may be unsure or anxious about what to expect.

Another problem is trying to manage long lines (one drive-through vaccination clinic in Sequim recently had a line of cars that stretched a mile and a half). If someone arriving for a vaccination appointment has many questions, that could hold things up. Members of the Starbucks team proposed having two different check-ins to speed things along: a “fast line” for those who just need to be registered and a “slow line” for those looking for more in-depth answers. In total, the company is working on three different models — fixed location clinics, drive-through clinics, and mobile pop-ups in more rural or undeserved areas — that it hopes can be widely used across the state. No Starbucks store locations are planned as vaccination sites at this time.

“We are not a health care company, but Starbucks does operate 33,000 stores at scale, serving 100 million customers a week,” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said during the February 18 press conference, touting the company’s design engineers, who will be working with state officials, tech companies, and health care providers over the coming weeks and months.

The partnership with Starbucks, as well as other private companies, comes as pressure mounts on the state to step up its slow rollout of vital COVID inoculations. On Friday, January 15, the Washington Department of Health reported that more than 460,000 doses of the COVID vaccine had been distributed across the state, but only around 151,000 had been administered (there may be a lag in reporting). Now, Washington has adjusted its initial plan for administering the vaccine to accommodate a larger pool of people, and has sought help from companies with close ties to the state. In addition to Starbucks, Microsoft will be lending its tech expertise, and Costco will be working with pharmacies on vaccine distribution.

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