Offering to serve: Starbucks joins effort to help speed COVID-19 vaccination delivery

Over the weekend, Jon Liechty’s mom called with big news. She’d just gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, she told him, which meant she was closer to being able to finally meet her grandson. Liechty’s first child, Lennox, is now 8 months old but the pandemic has kept her from traveling from her home state to meet him. Now, that was about to change. She texted Liechty a photo of her getting the vaccine, her eyes teary with emotion.

Liechty was happy his mom had gotten a vaccine – but what he especially wanted to know was what her experience was like. How was her time in the post-vaccine observation area? At what point was she told about v-safe, the vaccination health checker app?

“She didn’t understand why I had all these questions about the process,” he said.

What he could not share with her then as it wasn’t public yet was that he was working around the clock leading a small, scrappy team from Starbucks to create models to support Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee and his health officials as they determine how to get vaccines into the arms of more people.

Starbucks chief executive officer Kevin Johnson reached out to Inslee earlier this month to offer the company’s support. Starbucks serves 100 million customers a week in 30,000 stores around the world. Could that expertise be useful in finding ways to move people more effectively through vaccination sites? Inslee said yes.

“This is a massive humanitarian effort that is going to take all of us working together,” Johnson said.

Three people standing having a conversation
Kevin Johnson, Starbucks chief executive officer, gets a tour of a mock vaccination site in the Tryer innovation lab at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle.

On Monday afternoon, Inslee announced at a press conference the goal of increasing the number of vaccines given to people each day from around 15,000 to 45,000. While the state hasn’t been allocated that many doses yet, that’s expected to change in the months ahead. To help meet the goal of being able to deliver more vaccines, Inslee has formed the new Washington State Vaccine Command and Coordination Center, a statewide public-private partnership comprised of companies including Starbucks, Microsoft, Costco, Kaiser Permanente, other health care groups and government organizations.

“This is a massive effort and it takes everyone pulling on the rope to do this,” Inslee said during the press conference.

As part of the new group, Microsoft is lending its technology expertise and support while Costco is focused on vaccine delivery by pharmacies. Kaiser Permanente is responsible for planning and delivery of mass vaccine doses to providers.

Starbucks is focused on assisting with operational efficiency, developing models for vaccination centers that can be standardized and reproduced across the state and helping improve the patient experience.

“It’s the most streamlined Starbucks we’ll ever build,” said Liechty on Monday.  

“It’s like a Starbucks with one product,” added Johnson.

The two were standing in a mock vaccine distribution site in the Starbucks Tryer Center, an experimental lab located in a 20,000 square foot space on the bottom floor of the company’s Seattle headquarters. It’s a place where Starbucks tests ideas for new store designs, workshops new beverages and improves systems, such as a Nitro Cold Brew dispenser that will fit in stores with limited space.

One man taking another man's temperature with a thermometer gun

Johnson’s original idea for Tryer was to move “from idea to action in 100 days.” For the project to help triple the number of vaccines delivered to Washingtonians, it’s been less than 10 days.

‘Linked in the pursuit of doing good’

Shannon Garcia, senior vice president for U.S. operations, first heard a week and a half ago that Johnson was going to offer support to Inslee. She and her team quickly looked into how vaccination sites in Washington are currently operating. They also researched which states in the U.S. and which countries in the world are most effective at vaccinations, setting out to understand what makes them successful.

Soon after, she was on calls with Microsoft, the Washington State Department of Health and Challenge Seattle, an alliance of chief executive officers working together to address local issues.  

“We are linked in our pursuit of doing good,” said Garcia, who for the last year has been leading the retail crisis team, pulling together experts who could help stores adapt to COVID-19, prioritizing health and safety. “In some ways, this could be our highest calling. Our biggest hope is the ability to offer our expertise to truly nurture the human spirit in a way that pushes beyond coffee and food and get more accessibility to these vaccines.”

Garcia and her team all understand what is at stake. Nearly 24 million people in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly 400,000 have died as of Monday afternoon.

White board with notes showing flow of vaccination process

Janice Waszak, director of the Tryer Center, was among those diagnosed early on in the pandemic after she became sick last March and had trouble breathing. “It was really terrifying not knowing what would happen,” she said. “Every time I hear about someone diagnosed my heart goes out to them.”

Although she and many other members of the team recognize this is an enormous challenge for Washington, and the country, with the need for all of us to try and find a way to contribute, she is proud to find a small way to serve, she said. “If our work can help more people get vaccines and stop COVID, it’s a big deal.”

Removing barriers

On Saturday, several Starbucks partners spent the day at vaccination clinics to observe and talk to health workers about what is working and where the bottlenecks are in the process. The very next day, they created the mock vaccination station in the Tryer Center, building on what they’d learned.

The biggest problem to solve is actually the final step in vaccination. After getting a shot, people sit in an observation area for 15 minutes to be monitored for any adverse effects before they leave. But if the waiting area is full, the entire process grinds to a halt and no new people can be vaccinated.

Part of the bottleneck is that it’s self-monitored at most sites – and the person may not remember exactly what time they got the vaccine so they err on the side of staying a little longer. “People sit down and get on their phones and lose track of time,” Liechty said.

Two people sitting in chairs, role-playing people in a vaccination waiting area
Starbucks partners work through a mock vaccination site in the Tryer innovation lab at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle.

Some of the solutions the group working at Tryer came up with included giving people a slip that indicated the exact time they’d received their shot and having clocks placed prominently in waiting areas. Another idea is to send groups of people to the waiting area together as a socially distanced cohort that would be seated in the same row, then be dismissed together the same time. It’s similar to the idea of cars in line for a ferry.

Josh Kruger, operations manager at Tryer, said when the group observed a vaccine clinic, they saw one man in line for a vaccine FaceTiming with a relative asking her to translate a sign for him so he’d know where to go. The sign was in English and he spoke Mandarin. At Tryer, the group developed signs with symbols instead of words.

Monday, several groups of health workers rotated through to give their feedback on the flow of the mock vaccine site. One nurse mentioned that many arrive with a lot of anxiety because they don’t know what to expect. The group at Tryer had already devised a map to be given out with clear directions on what people can expect to happen.

When people arrive to be checked in for vaccines, if someone has a lot of questions, it can hold up the line. At Tryer, Starbucks partners proposed having two people at check-in stations: a “fast line” for those who just need to be registered and a “slow line” for those who might need answers.

The Starbucks team is working on three different models: vaccination clinics, drive-through clinics and mobile pop-ups to go to people in more rural or underserved areas.

Johnson said the team is approaching vaccination clinic designs as they would a barista working at a Starbucks bar, which involves  asking the question: What do you need? “If you can shave off seconds or a minute, you can save on throughput and vaccinate more people,” he said.

Scaling for good

With plans for more vaccination clinics to be opening around the state, including one on the Microsoft campus, Johnson wants to create standardized best practices that can be applied at all clinics and could scale up or down depending on need. Anything the company learns will be open source and available to anyone who might find it helpful.

And, just as when a customer places an order at Starbucks, Johnson wants to make sure those being vaccinated also feel cared for. “We understand we are not healthcare workers but we want to help provide a great human experience for those being vaccinated,” he said. “We want to provide comfort and care.”

Liechty hopes that with so many coming together to support this effort, this is the point where things start to turn around, where grandmothers, like his mom, can see their grandchildren and the economy could begin to safely reopen as more people are vaccinated. Nurses have told him they feel like they are playing defense. Some of the tools at Tryer, he hopes, will let them be on offense.

Johnson said most reports on COVID-19 begin with the number of new cases and the number of deaths. He hopes that soon reports will include the high numbers of people who have been vaccinated. “I hope we can help create some optimism in this time where we all really need it.”

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