With several COVID-19 vaccines on the way, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is partnering with large chain pharmacies across the food, drug and mass retail channel and independent pharmacy networks to ensure wide consumer access to the eagerly awaited immunizations.
HHS said yesterday the Federal Pharmacy Partnership Strategy for COVID-19 Vaccination program will provide coronavirus vaccine coverage across about 60% of pharmacies in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Via partnerships with network administrators, independent pharmacies and regional chains will also be part of the federal pharmacy program, which HHS noted will help provide COVID-19 vaccination access in traditionally underserved areas.
The initiative is part of Operation Warp Speed (OWS), the federal government’s project to accelerate the development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics by working with private firms and coordinating efforts among HHS, the Department of Defense and other federal agencies.
"The vast majority of Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy," said HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
“Ensuring access and affordability of the COVID-19 vaccine for all Americans is a top priority for the Trump Administration,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement. “We are leveraging the existing private-sector infrastructure to get safe and effective vaccines supported by Operation Warp Speed into communities and into arms as quickly as possible with no out-of-pocket costs. The vast majority of Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy, and our new agreement with pharmacy partners across America is a critical step toward making sure all Americans have access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines when they are available.”
Over the past couple of months, HHS has taken steps to make it easier for pharmacies nationwide to administer COVID-19 immunizations.
In September, the department issued guidance authorizing state-licensed pharmacists to order and administer Food and Drug Administration-approved coronavirus vaccines to people ages 3 and older. State-licensed or registered pharmacy interns also were authorized to administer the vaccines under the supervision of a pharmacist. Then in October, HHS expanded its authorization to enable qualified pharmacy technicians and state-authorized pharmacy interns to administer childhood and COVID-19 vaccines, as well as COVID-19 tests.
“Since 2012, CDC has worked extensively with pharmacies to improve pandemic preparedness, conduct vaccine throughput exercises, and assess store and organizational response capabilities,” according Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a unit of HHS. “Through these partnerships, we will leverage established relationships to support our critical public health mission of vaccinating the American public to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Chain and community pharmacies and pharmacy networks partnering with HHS on the COVID-19 vaccine access program include Ahold Delhaize USA, Albertsons Cos., Costco Wholesale, CPESN USA, CVS Health, Good Neighbor Pharmacy (AmerisourceBergen), Health Mart (McKesson), H-E-B, Hy-Vee, The Kroger Co., Medicine Shoppe/Leader (Cardinal Health), Meijer, Publix Super Markets, Southeastern Grocers, Walgreens and Walmart.
A host of regional food and drug retailers also are serving as federal pharmacy partners for coronavirus vaccinations via Topco Associates, including Acme Fresh Market, Big Y Foods, Brookshire Grocery, Coborn’s, Hartig Drug, King Kullen, Food City, Ingles Markets, Price Chopper, Raley’s, Save Mart Cos., SpartanNash, Tops Friendly Markets, ShopRite, Wegmans Food Markets and Weis Markets.
“Supermarket pharmacists stand ready to be part of the COVID-19 vaccination effort," stated Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of FMI-The Food Industry Association. "FMI’s member companies operate roughly 12,000 supermarket pharmacies nationwide, with pharmacists providing in-depth patient counseling and comprehensive immunization services. Moreover, the ability for consumers to receive a COVID-19 vaccination at the same location where they already purchase food and other essentials not only makes vaccine access more convenient, but it also makes it safer and reduces the risk of exposure in the midst of a pandemic. Finally, already being such trusted health care providers to their customers, supermarket pharmacists can play a key role in addressing patient concerns and highlighting the importance of getting vaccinated.
"It is vital for supermarket pharmacies to be part of the solution," Sarasin added. "We look forward to working with HHS to ensure that supermarket pharmacies play a significant role in the country’s COVID-19 vaccination effort.”
According to HHS, pharmacy partners will directly order and receive allocations of COVID-19 vaccines from the federal government. The immunizations will be provided at no cost to the pharmacy operators and be administered free to consumers at retail locations.
“When a vaccine is ready, our pharmacists will play a critical role in administering this important public health service," said Albertsons Cos.' Omer Gaijal.
Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons noted that the federal government will be able to distribute COVID-19 vaccines “quickly and efficiently” to millions of people by providing the inoculations directly to jurisdictions and pharmacies. The food and drug retailer said its pharmacies will work with the CDC and the states in its trade area to optimize delivery by coordinating and tracking distribution. The company’s pharmacy banners include Osco, Jewel-Osco, Albertsons/Albertsons Market, Safeway, Tom Thumb, Star Market, Shaw’s, Haggen, Acme, Randalls, Carrs, Market Street, United, Vons, Pavilions, Amigos, Lucky’s, Pak ’n Save and Sav-On.
“Throughout this pandemic, our pharmacy teams have been on the front lines, offering care and health solutions for our communities,” commented Omer Gaijal, senior vice president of Albertsons Cos. Pharmacy and Health, which operates 1,725 pharmacies across its retail banners. “When a vaccine is ready, our pharmacists will play a critical role in administering this important public health service.”
The Giant Company, an Ahold Delhaize USA supermarket chain, said its 132 Giant and Martin’s pharmacies have signed on as a federal pharmacy partner for administering COVID-19 vaccines. Pharmacies at Ahold Delhaize’s other U.S. chains — Stop & Shop, Giant Food, Food Lion and Hannaford — also are participating through the company’s Retail Business Services arm.
“Our pharmacists are trusted health advisers in the local communities that we serve and well-equipped to safely administer future COVID-19 vaccines,” stated Leigh Shirley, director of pharmacy operations at Carlise, Pa.-based Giant Company, which operates about 190 stores overall in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. “Being part of this federal pharmacy program lays the groundwork once a vaccine is available to help increase access to and distribution of the vaccine.”
Currently, no COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized or approved by FDA and recommended by CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, according to HHS. The department said the federal pharmacy partnership was formed in the expectation that one or more coronavirus vaccinations will be authorized or approved and recommended for use in the United States before the end of 2020. Published reports, however, say mass distribution of one or more vaccines isn’t likely until at least mid-2021.
COVID-19 vaccines now in Phase 3 trials include candidates from Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Novovax, among others.
Steve Anderson, president and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS), called the HHS announcement “historic,” noting that it reflects the expertise of pharmacy professionals and the high level of consumer trust in pharmacy staff.
“NACDS national and regional members are extremely well-prepared, as a result of their hard work, planning and execution and as a result of the education and training of pharmacy teams. National and regional pharmacies alike will be partnering at the federal and state levels in this historic vaccination initiative,” Anderson said in a statement on Friday. “As we have seen throughout the pandemic, it also will be critical to continue to anticipate, identify and resolve any nagging barriers that stand in the way of efficient administration of COVID-19 vaccinations and other services that are essential to the American people. NACDS members maintain a proactive footing in engaging with federal and state government leaders in that important work.”
*Editor's Note: Article updated with comment from FMI.
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