Vaccines roll out with military precision

ROSS FETTERLY  –  Dec 14, 2020

The federal government approved the use of Pfizer BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine on December 9th, following a review by Health Canada. This action was preceded by the government seconding Major-General Dany Fortin and a military planning team to the Health Portfolio Operations Centre (which falls under the authority of the Public Health Agency of Canada). Brigadier-General Simon Bernard and Brigadier-General Krista Brodie will also be assisting the Public Health Agency of Canada with logistical planning and coordination.

While planning capabilities and capacity exists in all Federal governments in Canada, the massive scale of this activity and complexity of this operation will benefit from the experience and expertise honed by the Canadian Forces when planning large-scale military deployments or operations.

The effectiveness of vaccine distribution and inoculation of Canadians is arguably the most important task ahead for both federal and provincial governments in Canada – and, if all goes according to plan, will finally enable citizens to return to normal life. The Canadian Forces’ logistics experience includes planning and preparation, coordination and control, and ensuring that all levels of government have a common operating picture.

A rapid national effort to distribute vaccines and to immunize Canadians in their local communities requires extensive planning and preparation. Timely coordination with all agencies and organizations involved at different levels, combined with establishment of specific points of contact has already occurred. Planning for vaccine distribution following the 249,000 vaccine doses shipped to Canada, together with the subsequent immunization of Canadians is the pre-eminent priority for the federal and provincial governments.

Professional national military forces have a robust and strong planning capacity as one of their primary attributes. In this regard, the Canadian Forces is an experienced, resilient and proficient planning machine. Currently, the Canadian Forces are already engaged in 11 domestic and 28 international operations of various size and complexity. This illustrates the scale and scope of operational planning and execution that the Canadian Forces undertakes in the normal course of a year, and does not take a break, even during a pandemic. Indeed, planning skills are perishable and need to be regularly used to be kept effective.

The Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces are unique in the country in that the military interacts nationally with the federal government and domestically with the provincial or municipal political leadership as crises deem necessary.

The Canadian Forces coordinate and support provinces in assisting citizens in floods, forest fires and other natural disasters. As such, the military regularly works with different levels of government. At each province, region, or city, the culture and manner in which they operate is different. Their operating procedures may have similarities, but can also have some different characteristics and cultures.

In addition to operational differences, uncertainty remains another significant planning factor for this vaccine distribution operation. This includes winter weather, likely adjustments to vaccine delivery schedules, and local capacity differences.

While a diverse range of physical issues (security, transportation, medical) will be involved in vaccine distribution and immunization at this early stage of the roll out, all parties will benefit from following the phases of military operational planning and execution.

Specifically, once the plan is developed, each party needs to understand their role and how they fit into the wider picture. They then need to jointly rehearse and practice their individual parts together. Then apply the lessons learned in advance of full-scale vaccine distribution. Each province and territory has unique challenges and difficulties, from size, population distribution and effort to reach populations in isolated areas of the country.

An essential component of any military or government planning and operations centre is the provision of consolidated situational awareness to all levels of government, and key partners in this vital national endeavour. This includes ensuring that all parties understand and function within this common operating picture. Furthermore, the Canadian Forces are spread throughout the country in various headquarters, bases, stations and units. Military logisticians training in transportation and supply operations provide experience and skill sets specific to transportation and delivery of vaccines. The use of military trucks and aircraft can support and augment vaccine delivery. In addition, the Canadian Forces can learn and share lessons learned by our British, French and American military allies.

The vaccines can be viewed as literally liquid gold. Hence security of the vaccines in transit and in storage is paramount. Military planners can coordinate the security of these vaccines with the RCMP and provincial or local police forces to protect against theft and intellectual property theft. Notwithstanding the time, effort and knowledge invested in the work, no plan fully survives contact with reality. Retired General Rick Hillier, who is leading the preparation of the Ontario government for the distribution of vaccines in that province, has led a table top exercise in Ontario to war game potential scenarios and problems. This included how to receive and store the vaccines, then ship them to the final destination for the immunization of Canadians.

Finally, the shipment received for distribution of 249,000 vaccines, and their distribution across southern Canada this week, will provide planners with the opportunity to fully test their plans, and make adjustments for future large shipments of vaccines. With the first Canadians received the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine today (14 Dec 2020), and shipments forthcoming for the Moderna vaccine, planners at all levels need to adjust in response to the lessons learned from the initial Pfizer shipment roll out. Adjusting detailed plans to ship several current and potential vaccines across Canada from major metropolitan centres to the broad expanse of rural Canada will be the next challenge.

Ross Fetterly is a retired Royal Canadian Air Force colonel and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.