President Joe Biden’s administration announced Tuesday that it will expand access to COVID-19 vaccines by distributing them to 6,500 retail pharmacies next week. The push comes amid new urgency to speed vaccinations to prevent the spread of potentially more serious strains of the virus that has killed more than 445,000 Americans.
Drugstores have become a mainstay for flu shots and shingles vaccines, and the industry is capable of vaccinating tens of millions of people monthly.
Participating in the program are major chains like CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Costco and supermarket pharmacies, including Publix and Walmart.
Dr. Sunil Joshi, head of the Duval County Medical Society Foundation, said he thinks the plan of expanding vaccine distribution to pharmacies in underserved areas is an important step.
“That’s what has been some of the challenge to this point as we try to roll out the vaccine into private pharmacies is that a lot of these are not located in the areas that typically have poor access to care and as a result have poorer access to the vaccine, so our hope is that this is exactly what’s going to happen now with the new federal government plan,” Joshi said.
He said the key in getting vaccines into underserved communities is trust.
“In these underserved communities that are typically overrepresented by people of color, it appears to me that the best way to go is to have the vaccines available in areas in which they trust the people running the vaccine site, so that might be areas that include churches, local not-for-profits, community centers or even colleges that may be embedded into those neighborhoods,” Joshi said. “Those places may have the infrastructure to provide it, they also are seeing a large number of members from the community on a daily basis or a weekly basis so that they can encourage the vaccine, promote the availability of the vaccine so people know that it’s there, and do it in an environment that they feel safe and comfortable.”
CVS said it will receive 250,000 doses initially, to be distributed to pharmacies in 11 states, but not yet in Florida and Georgia.
Walgreen’s website says the CDC is working with their pharmacies to optimize vaccine access in areas with a high social vulnerability index score. In the Jacksonville area, the CDC map shows Putnam, Bradford and Charlton counties have high vulnerability scores.
Winn-Dixie’s website has added a button to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, but no stores or appointments are yet available.
The Orlando Sentinel reports that Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in Florida will receive vaccines but doesn’t list specific stores where appointments will be available.
The number of participating pharmacies and the allocation of vaccines is expected to accelerate as drug makers increase production. The White House said the ultimate goal was to distribute the vaccines through more than 40,000 pharmacies nationwide. State and local guidelines will determine who is eligible to get a shot at their neighborhood pharmacy. Availability will be limited at first.
Joshi said the program should expand beyond the pharmacy chains to really be effective in these areas.
“So not just in a CVS or a Walgreen’s but in a local pharmacy that might be mom-and-pop owned that’s in that particular community where the members of that region trust the pharmacist or the community groups, the church groups, the not-for-profits. Those are areas to target and work with the community leaders in those areas as well to identify places that would work for everybody,” Joshi said.
A statewide task force made up of religious and community leaders in Florida also wants to get more shots into the arms of those in underserved communities and is holding a news conference at 10 a.m. Wednesday to address the issue.
Dan Mendelson, founder of the health care industry consulting firm Avalere Health, said part of the reason the vaccination campaign got off to a slow start is that states lacked their own infrastructure for mass vaccinations.
Joshi said it’s hard to say who’s to blame but he acknowledged that changes need to be made -- soon.
“I think it’s just an overall failure in the system that had been put in place. And maybe now, going forward, understanding some of the challenges that we’ve had already in the first one to two months of this, we’ll have a better plan going forward, and let’s hope that is indeed the case,” Joshi said.
To hear more from Joshi’s interview on The Morning Show, press play on the video at the top of this article.