Is retail ready to distribute the COVID- 19 vaccine?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/Studio CJ
Dec 14, 2020
Tom Ryan

With the FDA’s emergency approval late Friday of a vaccine co-developed by Pfizer, the nation is now counting on retail to help execute the nation’s most ambitious vaccination campaign in history.

The first doses are expected to start reaching frontline workers at hospitals this week. On Dec. 21, CVS and Walgreens will start administering vaccinations at the more than 70,000 nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the U.S. Early next year, they’ll be joined by Walmart, Costco, Kroger and others for a broader vaccine distribution as supply expands enough to reach the general public.

One early challenge, however, appears to be finding enough pharmacists to deliver the shots.  A Bloomberg article reports Walgreens is offering $500 referrals and up to $30,000 sign-on bonuses for eligible pharmacists and technicians, while CVS is making aggressive pitches to independent pharmacists. Both drug store chains insist they’re on pace to meet their hiring goals.

Preparing pharmacies to receive first and second doses remains a moving target as many details of the government’s distribution plan remain unclear and states ultimately decide how to allocate Covid-19 vaccine supplies.

Transporting and storing also present major challenges as the initial COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer need to be shipped in subzero temperatures.

A process must be established to ensure recipients return for a second shot 21 or 28 days after the first, depending on the vaccine. Dr. Tom Van Gilder, chief medical officer, Walmart, said in a blog entry, “It will be important to ensure people return for a second dose of the same vaccine at the right time, or the vaccine will not be effective.”

Theft of the highly-coveted vaccines is also a concern.

Finally, retailers may need to step up as advocates for the vaccine. A survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about half of Americans want to get the vaccine as soon as possible, another quarter aren’t sure and the remaining quarter aren’t interested.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What will be the obvious and less obvious challenges facing retailers in their role administering COVID-19 vaccinations? What questions should retailers be asking themselves to ensure they’re prepared?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Bumps along the way in logistics and scheduling? Sure. But we will all get through this."
"Plan for disaster before somebody who understands logistics (Army? Navy? Air Force? Marines? Public Health Service? – these are people who are trained in this) take over."
"We should also keep in mind that there will be other vaccines soon coming available that aren’t as logistically challenging."

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28 Comments on "Is retail ready to distribute the COVID- 19 vaccine?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Leveraging the broad reach of retailers for distribution makes perfect sense for a widespread vaccine but, as noted, it won’t be easy. The article has noted a number of obvious challenges: qualified staff to conduct the vaccinations, proper refrigeration, storage or other special handling requirements that might be required. Another is security. As a scarce and highly valuable commodity, until vaccines become widely available, we may see more sophisticated theft. Getting the virus under control will take the collective effort of everyone and retailers will play a key role.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Another challenge for retail is the lack of a national strategy for distribution and deployment. As states and jurisdictions cobble together local approaches, retailers will have to try to keep up. Expect some bumps along the way.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Our governor has apparently floated the idea that one shot of the Pfizer vaccine is enough. That adds to the trouble. Anyone want to take him off our hands?

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Yes, by all means, people should get their medical advice not from doctors — but from wacko governors!

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

By his logic if 50 percent reduction is good, 100 percent reduction is probably even better — who said politicians needed to be able to count?

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Logic?

Bethany Allee
BrainTrust

The last mile is always the toughest and most expensive part of the fulfillment chain. It’s interesting that those of us with a hand in the retail industry will have a tremendous impact when it comes to vaccine distribution and fulfillment. Major label pharmacies must take action now. With 100 million doses (some two-part, some one-part) coming at us with phased deployment and complicated cooling needs, pharmacy retailers must have a solid plan in place. They will play a major role in how we combat this virus.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

On top of the challenges that Mark points out, the process from state to state will lead to a lot of inconsistent administration of the vaccine. The lack of Federal coordination has been an issue all year long when it comes to PPE and other logistics issues.

Here in Wisconsin, there does not appear to be any coordinated effort to sign people up based on their age and medical history, while in neighboring Lake County, IL you can already register for the vaccine. This won’t make the retailers’ jobs any easier when the pipeline starts to fill up with more supply.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

Retailers have tremendous expertise in supply chain execution, we have the tools and the infrastructure to reach almost every person in the U.S.

The issue I would be thinking about is how to scale my capabilities to react to the anticipated demand. This might be an opportunity for some of the major pharmacy chains to collaborate in security and distribution efforts to make sure the national vaccination effort happens efficiently across all communities.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

But what expertise do retailers have in keeping a vaccine at -70 degrees Fahrenheit? What happens if somewhere along the supply chain (moving from the warehouse to the store) it warms to -30 degrees Fahrenheit? Is that bad?

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Gee, and I thought the problem would be the vaccines getting too warm. Apparently it’s not just warming that is the problem.

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff

There are always snags in new processes, especially this situation given its complexity and the need for execution at the local level with very little federal support. Retailers like CVS have the best chance of executing despite all the challenges given their experience in large-scale implementations, store network and consumer connections.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

One would think that apart from the obvious with the Pfizer vaccine (insanely cold refrigeration), the drug chains have gotten accustomed to administering vaccines in their store locations. Sending them out to nursing homes may prove more problematic.

Of course I have to wonder. Given the lack of mask compliance I have seen on two different occasions among pharmacy techs in one of the two majors, I’d be hesitant to let them near me. I’d rather go to a doctor, to be honest.

So retailers should ask themselves “Do we have adequate cooling? Are our employees compliant?” And sadly “Are we ready for blow-back from anti-vaxxers?”

David Leibowitz
BrainTrust

I’m encouraged that the delivery isn’t by general “retail.” Vaccines will be delivered by leading pharmacies (CVS + Walgreens), which also have experience in delivering flu shots and other care.

Bumps along the way in logistics and scheduling? Sure. But we will all get through this.

I’m actually less concerned with the theft/crime element given the cold storage requirements and the blockchain delivery. That should make it difficult to swipe, and even more challenging to peddle on a secondary market.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

What a historic moment for America – and for retail. Mobilizing the vaccine rollout is on-brand for these pharmacy and grocery leaders who provided our essentials all year.

Obvious challenges include efficient vaccine administration without compromising safety. Achieving pervasive reach across America is also vital so no one is left out.

Less obvious challenges include the need for proactive risk mitigation strategies to manage potential anti-vaccine pushback. Also, communication strategies that inform consumers of the benefits of the vaccine could speed up herd immunity and public safety.

Retailers should consider if they have the right people and processes in place to make this rollout as smooth, safe and as efficient as possible.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

I am happy to see (via numerous email messages) that retail stores will be involved in distributing the vaccine to the public. I would think that the refrigeration issue, storage, and other requirements will be considered (following CDC guidelines and with everyone properly trained before administration begins to the public.)

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

There’s no way this is going to work well. This requires a level of organization that we have yet to see at the government level, at the state level (we’re just as bad as Florida here in Georgia, Paula), at the local level, or at the retail level. Plan for disaster before somebody who understands logistics (Army? Navy? Air Force? Marines? Public Health Service? – these are people who are trained in this) take over.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I was truly surprised the National Guard wasn’t mobilized for this task, but you know … nothing is normal.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust

The challenges are many and the need is great. The abundance of misinformation complicates everything. The retailers involved in the process have been in discussions for how to manage the process for some time and have created their protocols. Depending upon how well their systems work the process should work. Demand will determine how swamped their systems become during the process. This is not the first time these retailers have administered vaccines, this is not the first time they have administered vaccines requiring two doses. This is not the first time they have administered vaccines in the face of misinformation. This is the first time they have had the requirement of such a low temperature. I am hopeful.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Having retailers distribute the vaccine is an obvious solution, but probably not the best solution. This is a public health problem and will require mountains of data sharing to track. Who is going to do all that? What are the implications in terms of privacy? Who is going to want their proprietary patient files monitored? Will there be enough qualified techs to administer the shots? Will they be free? These, and a hundred more serious questions like how will retailers guarantee temperature controls need to be answered before broad retail distribution makes sense.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

An incredible logistical challenge. And one no retailer would be “prepared for” — because no one can be prepared for an event of this type.

So the more relevant question is: Can THIS scramble to prepare result in an effective distribution of the vaccine?

I think it can. Retailers are logistically sophisticated. So while there are very serious challenges, why would we suspect failure? They face a very, very big challenge. And I can’t imagine groups with better fundamentals to scramble to create an effective vaccine program.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Although the availability of existing vaccines in stores of many types (chain drug, discount chains, etc.) is well-established, as the COVID-19 vaccines arrive on-site, effective distribution to the consumer will be spotty in the early stages. Retail leadership needs to determine staffing needs not only to administer the vaccines, but also for the administration of vaccines. That means the paperwork, the in-store traffic flow, the execution of all the elements of the supply chain, etc.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

Retail will try, and I’m sure do on average admirably, but with the strict and abnormally difficult temperature controls on this one I’m going to try to stick to our local hospital system, where the chain of custody is more likely to work. I’m a bit surprised that there’s no shared “patient registry” of who has been vaccinated, reserving second doses, reactions tracked back to lot number, etc. Not the most complicated solution to have built and deployed.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

One of the unsung challenges about this is weather — temp spaces should be outside, given the way the bug easily spreads inside so, throw a snowstorm or sub zero day in there and the fun will begin! Not insurmountable of course, just another bump in the road to scale.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

The dynamics, complexities and challenges associated with the mass distribution of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are, as most things have been in 2020, unprecedented. Pharmacy retailers and grocery operations are ramping up to help distribute the vaccine. However, there will be supply chain constraints.

The unique temperature requirements will require adjusting staffing, distribution, operating models, and in-store operations to execute and administer the vaccine beyond the essential hospital workers and nursing home attendees. A federally mandated operating model should be distributed to all retailers and supply chain partners to ensure that the vaccine is safely shipped and handled for the masses.

With all of this said, we should not lose sight of the importance of social distancing, quarantining, and sanitation, as the vaccine is only a part of the long-term solution.

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Good points Brandon. We should also keep in mind that there will be other vaccines soon coming available that aren’t as logistically challenging. For example, Moderna’s vaccine can be stored at 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit and can last nearly 30 days in the fridge, making it much more practical for retail distribution.

James Tenser
BrainTrust

The large pharmacy chains have one big edge in the Pfizer vaccine distribution scenario — lots of locations in virtually every corner of the country. But all those endpoints are not an answer by themselves. There will be one or more mid-stages in the distribution where jet-load and truck-load quantities need to be split into store-level deliveries, without breaking the unprecedented super-cold chain. So far I have heard virtually nothing about how that is going to be accomplished. Since the pharmacy chains aren’t saying much, I assume they don’t have a bulletproof plan. Hope they prove me wrong, and pronto.