Cover Story

Giving the state its shot in the arm

By Susan McDonald

With Hartford HealthCare’s team of experts figuring out the multi-layered logistics behind the statewide COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Eric Arlia said, “I feel like we could tackle the world!”

Arlia, senior director of pharmacy for Hartford HealthCare (HHC) and one of the operations leads behind vaccine distribution, drew heavily on the space planners, information technology specialists and physicians to plan one of the nation’s most effective vaccine distribution plans. But, a master’s in business administration and penchant for “seeing things that might need to be addressed in the future” hasn’t hurt either.

“I find this tremendously fulfilling,” Arlia said two months into the rollout. “Yes, I’m working a
lot — all of us are — but it’s about doing what’s needed now. When you have skills that are needed, you dig down deep and push through so we can return to normal.

“This is the most important job I’ll do in my career. I’m proud of the whole team and it’s a tremendous honor to represent the vaccine program.”

At age 50, the veteran pharmacy leader — senior system director for three years after working for two years at the helm of Hartford Hospital’s pharmacy and 11 years leading the pharmacy at Backus Hospital — said vaccine planning and execution consumes 80 to 90 percent of his time.

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It started last summer in the quiet between waves one and two of the pandemic, when it became clear pharmaceutical companies would have vaccine ready by the end of the year.

“We started planning and ordering more freezers,”

he said, referring to the specialty freezers needed to store vaccine at extremely low temperatures. “We have a big group of people working on this.”

The self-proclaimed “press secretary” due to regular appearances before local media to discuss vaccine, Arlia said his role is heavily focused on logistics.

“My strength has always been in operations. I think I’m a good planner,” he noted, adding that the team drew heavily on colleagues with Lean and project management skills to “get organized around processes and create standard work.”

Keenly focused on safety, the team hosts two daily huddles to touch base and share information on staff training and other logistics, as things moved quickly and plans swelled to meet objectives, Arlia said.

“Things have been growing so fast. We’ve become very agile to handle developments like launching mobile vaccine units. We continue to improve process and move forward,” he said, referring to the opening of community mega clinics to offer mass vaccinations.

Even President Joseph Biden’s aggressive plan to vaccinate millions of Americans or the potential need for a vaccine booster to protect against new virus variants didn’t cause him stress.

“We can work through all the logistics if
the vaccine is available,” he said. “I have the confidence that this team could figure out any logistics other than manufacturing the vaccine!”