The Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 Vaccination will launch this week with a goal to increase access to the vital vaccination across the United States. Early on in the pandemic, pharmacists were identified as trusted members of the health care team to provide testing and education to the public. As vaccines have become available, some states have already engaged pharmacists to assist with vaccination efforts, however, there have been calls to better utilize pharmacist in these efforts. This program will expand pharmacies’ access to supplies and pharmacist’s opportunity to make an even greater impact on the pandemic.
What is the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 Vaccination?
This collaboration between the federal government, states, and numerous national pharmacy partners and networks of independent pharmacies, is part of the strategic plan to help meet President Biden’s goal of administering 100 million vaccines during his first 100 days in office (18 days into his term, 40.5 million doses have been administered in the US). Initially, select community pharmacies will receive limited supplies of the vaccines, the allocation of which is dependent on the number of people in the jurisdiction, number of pharmacies, and reach. For a complete list of participating pharmacies, and which pharmacies based on location will have supply during the roll-out phase, please visit the CDC website. Pharmacies who are not enrolled in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program can enroll directly with a state or territory’s immunization program to offer vaccination in their communities.
In addition to improving access, the program is believed to decrease logistical and operational burdens on state, local, and territorial health departments, as the vaccines will be provided directly to the pharmacies from the federal government. The CDC is also offering the Pharmacy Transfer Program, which allows states and territories to transfer allocated vaccine doses to the federal pharmacy partners. However, the states will remain responsible for determining the eligibility of the patients and phases of rollouts within the communities.
Although this program may be a step in the right direction to improve access to vaccines, the initial list of participating pharmacies is restricted based on limited supplies, and new programs do not come without anticipated challenges. For patients who have not received services at the limited number of pharmacies with access, the pharmacy team will need to take time to create new patient profiles, including adding and assessing allergies, current conditions, medication regimens, and insurance information. The pharmacy team will also need to document vaccine administrations to ensure appropriate tracking, all while maintaining the high level of chronic and acute care needs required by patients.
In our opinion, the biggest challenge we continue to face during this pandemic remains equitable access for all populations, especially our most vulnerable communities. Although the CDC states that they will continue to collaborate with states and territories to shift vaccine inventory as needed to ensure fair access, how can we ensure equitable administration of the vaccines?
Goal: Improve equitable access to vaccines
The Biden Administration states that the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program is a key component of the Administrations’ strategy to expand equitable access to vaccines for the American public. But will it?
The CDC worked with states and territories to select initial pharmacy locations that would provide access in the communities. Factors that were considered included the “number of stores, the ability to reach some of the populations most at risk for severe illness from COVID-19 (those over 65 years of age, socially vulnerable communities), and alignment with their existing vaccination plan.” Despite vaccine availability in these communities, there’s no guarantee the vaccines will be administered to the most vulnerable populations and providing vaccines in socially vulnerable communities may not prevent people from wealthier neighborhoods from signing up for doses at these locations.
Additionally, people in underserved neighborhoods continue to experience barriers, including lack of transportation, ability to take time off from jobs to get to appointments, and skepticism about the vaccine, which this program does not address. The CDC does note that this program relies on a collaboration with public health departments to encourage individuals to receive the vaccine and community outreach to educate on the importance of vaccination and where vaccines are available, though no specific plans are outlined. Furthermore, access to or difficulty navigating registration websites, or even the access to check online to see if a local pharmacy will be administering the vaccine, remains a barrier.
Pharmacists are highly trusted and trained professionals to help with vaccine administration and increasing supplies of vaccines in the pharmacies may help, but innovative approaches such as mobile vaccination vans and partnerships with faith-based organizations may be key to overcoming some of the barriers that remain to equitable access to the vaccine