Pharmacy giants ramp up logistical assistance for COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Walgreens, Costco, CVS and others said they would use existing IT systems to help customers track their vaccination dosage schedule.
By Kat Jercich
10:58 AM

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced in November that it would partner with more than a dozen chain and independent pharmacies to help distribute the COVID-19 vaccine. 

But the potential size and scope of the vaccine roll-out could present logistical snags, especially for vaccines requiring two doses.

"It's a little difficult to put in a framework for interoperability at the last minute," said Dr. Darren Schulte, former CEO of Apixio and currently president of advanced technology at Centene. "Right now, it's a voluntary data-sharing exercise."

Healthcare IT News reached out to several of these pharmacies about their supply chain and patient tracking plans when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Although it's still relatively early days, many said they had plans in place to administer the vaccines when they become more widely available.

Walgreens and CVS, for instance, will be working with HHS to administer the vaccine in long-term care facilities in Florida, Ohio, Connecticut and West Virginia, with more long-term care facilities receiving doses in other states soon.

Tasha Polster, divisional vice president of pharmacy quality compliance and patient safety at Walgreens, told Healthcare IT News that the company will collaborate with nearly 35,000 long-term care facilities as part of the first step in administering the vaccine to the most vulnerable people in the United States. 

"In the early phases when select high-priority populations are eligible and jurisdictions have requested our support, we’ll partner with the state health officials to allow for secure electronic-appointment options," Polster explained. "Once a COVID-19 vaccine is broadly available, Walgreens will provide online scheduling options similar to how we schedule flu and other routine vaccinations.

"The technology and data infrastructure that Walgreens has today will be critical to supporting the administration of COVID-19 vaccines, especially those that require two doses and require tracking and patient follow-up," she added. 

According to Polster, Walgreens already supports and reports state registry data and will meet any additional reporting requirements. 

"We have extensive experience administering series-based vaccinations and will take the learnings and tools from our current immunization processes to apply to COVID-19 vaccinations, which includes dose reminder cards, email reminders and more," she said.

Given the likely availability of the Moderna vaccine in addition to the Pfizer/BioNTech one, the states have worked with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine which vaccine will be sent to their states for initial distribution, and added that the vaccine will be available at no cost to those receiving it, Polster said.

Costco, meanwhile, said that it would be participating on a limited basis in phase one of the roll-out in Alaska and Washington, with eventual plans to participate in all states.

"Logistics are still being worked out – but we do plan to have 'clinic days' at select pharmacies, where we will staff with multiple pharmacists in an area of the warehouse to allow for high volume of vaccinations," a representative told Healthcare IT News.

"We will also have vaccine by appointment only – at all Costco pharmacies throughout the week during business hours – at least to start," the representative continued, noting that the company has "systems that identify who received the first vaccination (and which one) and will alert via text/email" when patients are due for their second shot.

At Kroger, meanwhile, "the size and scale of our healthcare footprint, with over 2,200 pharmacies and 220 clinics in 35 states, provides us the unique ability to efficiently facilitate COVID-19 testing and immunize a large portion of the U.S. population once vaccines become available," said a spokesperson.

"Once an FDA-authorized vaccine is available, we’re committed to making it accessible in accordance with the federal roll-out plan. All our pharmacies and clinics are staffed with professional, licensed pharmacists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and technicians," the spokesperson added.

An Albertsons Companies representative directed Healthcare IT News to its official statement, which reads in part that pharmacies will work with the CDC and states to "streamline and optimize the delivery of the vaccine" by coordinating, tracking and monitoring distribution. 

"Once [a] COVID-19 vaccine is available, recipients will be able to find contactless consent forms for the vaccine in the company’s pharmacy apps. By completing the necessary paperwork electronically ahead of time, patients can reduce the amount of time spent in the pharmacy."

A statement on Walmart's website, meanwhile, says the company has been preparing its pharmacies to receive the doses, including equipping them with freezers and dry ice. 

It has, according to the website, entered into agreements with states to support vaccinations where needed and put in place "processes to inform people of when to receive the first and second doses and to report successful vaccinations," although a Walmart spokesperson declined to offer details about those processes.

Donna Montemayor, senior director of H-E-B Pharmacy, said the chain had been "preparing for months and have almost 1,000 certified immunizers ready to provide the vaccine to Texans," speaking on video on the H-E-B website.

It also has the necessary equipment to store and distribute the vaccines safely, she said. 

"When it becomes available, all H-E-B pharmacies will offer the COVID-19 vaccine at no cost to our customers," said Montemayor.

“Rite Aid will be ready to administer safe and effective COVID-19 vaccinations when they are available. Our team is already hard at work preparing for vaccine availability," said a spokesperson for the company, who declined to offer further comment.

Although CVS Health did not respond to requests for an interview, president and CEO Larry Merlo recently told NBC News' TODAY that "as soon as we get our allocations of the vaccine, we'll be on the road within 48 hours … We have our logistics planned, we have our staffing planned and we are ready to go."

The general public will be able to schedule a vaccine using the company's app or a 1-800 phone number, “to make it simple, easy and seamless for our customers."

When it comes to long-term care facilities, Merlo said, “We certainly expect to be on the road at those facilities certainly before the Christmas time frame."


Taking Stock of Progress and Looking Ahead

This December, we look back at a challenging year – and forward to what we hope is a better, stronger, more connected and resilient healthcare ecosystem.

Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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