Small triumphs, some glitches as nationwide Covid-19 vaccine pharmacy program takes off
Posted February 12, 2021 11:52 p.m. EST
CNN — Adam Bayer and his wife Traci own Hillcrest Pharmacy, located in the 11,000-person town of Vernon, Texas. It's one of the pharmacies receiving coronavirus vaccines as part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program that began a much-anticipated rollout this week. The Bayers are among the first in the nation to administer vaccines under the program.
When the pharmacy received the shipment of Moderna doses late Wednesday, the Bayers -- both pharmacists -- started calling people they knew were eligible.
The first call Traci made was to a couple in their mid-70s who had been quarantined for nearly a year, not even seeing their children or grandchildren because of their age and underlying conditions.
"Our pharmacy was the first place they'd been since March," Adam Bayer told CNN.
"I knew that they truly needed it. And the sooner that we can get them vaccinated, the sooner they can start living a more normal life. Of course, I still recommend people wear masks and social distance, but they could go into a grocery store, go see their grandkids," Bayer said.
Last week, the Biden administration announced the federal government would begin direct shipments of vaccines to retail pharmacies, with a total of 1 million doses going to about 6,500 stores, before eventually expanding. The coordinated effort is expected to help expand vaccine uptake. The program this week was met with fanfare, a few technical glitches and plenty of sore arms.
Twenty-one pharmacy chains are included in this ambitious first-time rollout, including CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid and Walmart.
Many experts say turning to retail pharmacies to increase vaccine uptake makes sense as a way to minimize the logistical challenges in state and local health departments. And with clinics and hospitals struggling to provide care for patients sick with Covid-19 -- especially in small rural communities -- taking vaccines elsewhere makes sense.
"Millions of Americans turn to their local pharmacies every day for their medicines, flu shots, and much more," White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said in a briefing on February 2 when the rollout was announced. "And pharmacies are readily accessible in most communities, with most Americans living within five miles of a pharmacy."
Pharmacies need vaccines to vaccinate
Steven Anderson, president and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, says he's confident the 1-million goal can be met, as long as enough vaccine ends up in pharmacies.
"Ultimately NACDS member pharmacies can meet and exceed the 100 million vaccinations in a month threshold, yet it's important to understand that the supply of vaccines remains the rate-limiting factor in the vaccination effort," he said.
A majority of these 1 million doses distributed through the program were allocated to CVS, Walmart, Walgreens and Rite Aid. CVS received 250,000 doses, Walmart about 200,000, Walgreens about 180,000, and Rite Aid about 116,000.
These doses are separate from the allocations that the federal government is sending to each state, though they are still subject to each state's eligibility guidelines.
Without this federal program, Adam Bayer said Hillcrest Pharmacy would not be able to vaccinate the community.
He said the state of Texas allocated the pharmacy only enough doses to vaccinate 100 people in December as part of the state vaccination program.
As pharmacists on the front lines, Traci and Adam Bayer were able to get their shots early. When the pharmacy began receiving vaccines in December, Traci used one dose to vaccinate her husband. Then, the next day, he used one to vaccinate his wife.
Then they kept vaccinating -- mostly other healthcare workers due to eligibility requirements at the time -- until their supply ran out. Every Monday morning since then, the Bayers requested 1,000 doses from the state but the focus had already shifted to bigger cities. The federal program hopes to address that problem.
"We don't want to be forgotten in the rural areas," he said. "We're up to the challenge, we just need the vaccine. And we need them to remember us," Bayer said.
Everyone deserves a fair shot
On Friday morning, people lined up to receive their first doses at a local CVS pharmacy in East Los Angeles, one of the hardest-hit communities.
Lisa Kalajian, the CVS Health District Leader, told CNN it was important for CVS to pick locations in the underserved communities.
"The process has been extremely fluid, we have an incredible storage system that's coming in for the vaccines," said Kalajian. "We've had absolutely no issues with receiving the vaccines and preparing them for today's vaccine clinics."
The location expected over 100 people on its first day of appointments, each slot was booked and the day proceeded with some ease.
But in Florida, there was a glitch in Walmart's scheduling system.
Walmart's website was allowing people in Florida with preexisting conditions to register for vaccination appointments, despite Gov. Ron DeSantis' "Seniors First" vaccination plan for the state that prioritizes seniors, long-term care facility residents and staff, and health care personnel with direct patient contact.
In a statement to CNN, a Walmart spokesperson said the criteria for the vaccine program are established by each state's department of health. "In Florida, Walmart's scheduling program defaulted to the criteria on the DOH website" instead of the criteria set up by the governor's order. The pharmacy chain agreed to honor already-scheduled appointments.
There haven't been any glitches for Hillcrest Pharmacy, just a growing wait-list. Currently, there are 500 people who are eligible for vaccines and have requested appointments. The couple know most of them personally.
As a participant in the federal program, Hillcrest Pharmacy will receive 100 doses per week until it comes time for second doses, Adam Bayer said. At that point, the pharmacy will receive 200 doses -- 100 for new vaccinations, and 100 for second doses, he said.
"We have people that are sick and we've had people in our community that have gotten Covid and died that otherwise would not have, if they would have had the vaccine," Adam Bayer said.