This week, responsibility for vaccinating Americans against coronavirus will expand to more retail pharmacies, extending the reach of the hospitals and health departments that are currently providing vaccines. According to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 coordinator, an initial shipment of 1 million doses will go to 6,500 stores, with 40,000 pharmacies eventually receiving shipments.
It’s an opportunity that pharmacists welcome and pharmacy organizations are advocating for, with the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), ASHP (the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists), and others releasing statements of support, letters to President Biden, and providing guidance, training, and other resources.
It’s no surprise that pharmacists stand ready to vaccinate millions. In addition to being one of the most trusted professions, pharmacists and pharmacies have historically played a crucial role in meeting the health needs of their communities. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges. Following are three strengths pharmacists will need to draw on to successfully lead the way in the COVID-19 vaccination initiative.
Flexibility. The operational process of vaccinating a large portion of the population during a global pandemic turns the standard pharmacy business model on end. For example, pharmacies order in advance from manufacturers or wholesalers for annual flu vaccine clinics. They can control the quantity of doses they receive and the timing of delivery. In comparison, with the coronavirus vaccine being allocated by the federal government, much is unpredictable. Pharmacies may not know exactly how many doses they will receive or exactly when the vaccines will arrive, so they need to be prepared to have all hands on deck with short notice. Unpredictable allocation will be a challenge not only for first doses but for planning administration of second doses as well.
The phased approach to vaccinating populations in a specific order also adds complexity to the process, with states mandating who can receive the vaccine, and when. Some states, like New York, also have a specific timeframe in which you need to use vaccines. With only a seven-day window, many were scrambling last week when a major snowstorm forced the cancelation of appointments at vaccination clinics throughout the state. Unfortunately, there’s no blueprint for these situations, and everyone must remain flexible as circumstances unfold.
Innovation. Pharmacies have been fielding phone calls for weeks from anxious patients who want to know when they can be vaccinated. Patient outreach has become more important than ever so pharmacies can keep patients informed and prevent them from arriving at the pharmacy en masse, which is problematic when trying to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
One independent pharmacy in upstate New York revamped and streamlined its annual flu vaccine process to meet the unique workflow requirements of the pandemic. By using a secure communication solution, it can send information on vaccine availability to specific groups and send patient-specific reminders that encourage people to show up for their second shot. Notifications can also include links to educational information, such as side effects patients should watch out for after being vaccinated. Making documents available digitally is also key, so patients can sign consent forms electronically and send them back before arriving at the pharmacy, reducing wait times and limiting exposure for staff and patients.
Respecting social distancing guidelines is even more challenging for pharmacies that are also doing COVID-19 testing. Logistically, bringing an elderly population in for vaccinations while testing others who suspect they may be infected requires a close analysis of the pharmacy floorplan to keep these groups separated. There’s also a need for patients to wait 15 or 20 minutes after receiving the vaccine to be sure they don’t experience negative side effects. This is a novel virus, and while most side effects have been minor, pharmacies need to accommodate patients while they wait, and put a plan in place to respond to the rare severe reaction.
Expertise. For a long time, pharmacists have been playing an integral role in primary care, especially in underserved communities. Going far beyond dispensing medications, pharmacists are highly trained medication experts who are often the most accessible healthcare providers for patients, with 90% of Americans living within five miles of a community pharmacy.
As the coronavirus pandemic strains all of healthcare, pharmacists are helping ease the burden by providing essential services on the frontlines, including meeting other vaccination needs, providing medication counseling, and helping patients manage chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
To fight the pandemic, community pharmacists are going into nursing homes to quickly vaccinate residents and staff. Pharmacy staff in hospitals and health systems also are taking a major role in COVID-19 vaccinations, with nearly 40% reporting that vaccine administration is one of their primary roles right now and about a third saying the hospital pharmacy is serving as a hub for vaccine distribution to other locations in the state or health system. In addition, several states are including specially trained pharmacy technicians in the immunization effort, and the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board is collaborating with APhA to offer technicians a new immunization credential.
With a million eagerly awaited doses arriving at pharmacies throughout the country, pharmacists in our neighborhoods and hospitals are playing a critical role in delivering vaccinations and leading the way out of this unprecedented crisis.