Help with vaccination push comes from unexpected businesses

Microsoft is opening up its largely empty office campus in Washington as a vaccination centre. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Amazon wrote to US President Joe Biden on Thursday (Jan 21) offering to assist with communication and technology. Microsoft is opening up its largely empty office campus as a vaccination centre as part of a broader partnership with the state of Washington. Starbucks is assigning workers from its operations and analytics departments to help design vaccination sites, donating the labour to the same state while continuing to pay employees.

While some retailers and pharmacy chains have been directly involved in the roll-out of coronavirus vaccinations, more surprising is the number of companies that have offered help despite having little to do with healthcare.

What these companies do have are vast national footprints, significant manpower, huge distribution warehouses and, in some cases, empty office buildings. And they have the money to spare for a public service effort that could boost both their public image and their bottom line.

"Big companies can think big," said Dr Arthur Herman, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC. "They can afford to step back and think about their role as a social force in their state and in the country. They also have enormous supply chains and logistical connections."

As Mr Biden tries to achieve his goal of carrying out 100 million doses in 100 days, he will need all the help he can get. The President has asked Congress for US$20 billion (S$26.6 million) to help fund vaccinations at stadiums, pharmacies and the like. He said on Friday that he had tapped the Federal Emergency Management Agency to operate up to 100 mass vaccination sites.

But the private sector could assist the administration's efforts with data storage, appointment scheduling, the delivery of supplies to clinics and hospitals, and more.

"Amazon, Google, Microsoft, these guys are consumer-facing people who can deal with billions of transactions on a daily basis," said Mr Suketu Gandhi, a partner Kearney, a management and consulting firm.

Washington's governor, Mr Jay Inslee, included the help of companies like Starbucks, Costco and Microsoft in a plan to vaccinate 45,000 residents a day.

"We are not a healthcare company," Mr Kevin Johnson, the chief executive of Starbucks, said at a news conference announcing the partnership on Monday, "but Starbucks does operate 33,000 stores at scale, serving 100 million customers a week. And we have a world-class team of human-centred-design engineers who are working under the direction of the state, and healthcare providers like Swedish, Kaiser Permanente and others."

The coffee chain will lend its expertise in "operational efficiency", among other things, Mr Inslee said in a news release.

Microsoft will open up an empty building on its campus in Redmond to vaccinations in partnership with the state and healthcare providers. It is also offering its technology, building on abilities it has already offered to the government, including artificial intelligence to the state Department of Health to help track hospitalisations and tests.

"Certainly technology plays a role in the distribution of vaccines, as it basically does in the distribution of everything in the world," Microsoft's president and chief legal officer, Mr Brad Smith, said at the event announcing the roll-out.

Amazon is holding a pop-up vaccine clinic in Seattle on Sunday, through a partnership with Virginia Mason Medical Centre; they hope to vaccinate 2,000 people. The company has also offered to vaccinate its own employees in the state, many of whom it says are essential workers - an offer it has made to Tennessee as well.

This past week, Amazon told the Biden administration that it could help with "operations, information technology and communications capabilities". It did not elaborate to The New York Times on what the assistance would entail.

"The scale of some of these retailers is so important," said Mr Andrew Lipsman, analyst at the data analytics firm eMarketer. "They've never been better equipped to handle increases in volume, especially because they have had to ramp up their operational capacity in the middle of the pandemic."

Certain companies may hope their offers endear them to the new administration - or the public.

"It's great PR to be seen as someone who helps during this crisis," said Dr Herman, the senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Companies are also encouraging their workers to get vaccinated. Representatives for Kroger and Walmart said vaccination efforts would include their employees who were eligible to receive one.

Some retailers are giving their employees direct incentives to get vaccinated.

JBS, the meat-packing giant, is offering a US$100 bonus. (The industry's working conditions make its employees particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.) Dollar General, which has 157,000 workers in about 17,000 stores, is giving them four hours of pay if they get a vaccine. The grocery delivery service Instacart said it would provide a US$25 stipend. Chobani is covering up to six hours of wages so workers can get vaccinated.

"We're going to do our part to help defeat this virus that's hurt so many," said Mr Peter McGuinness, Chobani's chief operating officer. "And, in doing so, it's going to keep our employees safer."

Other companies' approaches are more stick than carrot, saying they may require vaccinations. Mr Scott Kirby, the chief executive of United Airlines, which reported its biggest losses in a decade for the fourth quarter, told employees on Thursday that the carrier - and other businesses - could make the coronavirus vaccine mandatory for all workers.

Companies with vaccinated employees are likely to be more attractive to customers, making them feel safer when shopping or receiving assistance in stores. For some, mass vaccination may be essential for their business to stabilise.

"There's no doubt that getting their employees vaccinated is going to be good for business and will be an important boost to getting the economy back on track," said Dr Herman, who has written a book about the mobilisation of American industry during World War II.

Still, to achieve national vaccination requires what Mr Biden has described as a "full-scale wartime effort", with its success dependent on coordination among companies, federal agencies and a bitterly divided Washington.

"These companies have a huge, huge opportunity to help," Mr Gandhi of Kearney said. "Will they save the day? I don't know."

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