Will retail pharmacies be the cure for America’s ‘vaccine deserts’?

Discussion
Photo: Kroger
Feb 09, 2021
George Anderson

Communities that have long had trouble attracting grocers that sell fresh and nutritious foods may find they have pulled the short straw when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations, as well.

So-called food deserts may also turn out to be vaccine deserts, according to a recent CNBC report, which highlights early criticism of the state of Florida’s approach to getting its at-risk citizenry vaccinated against the virus.

A recent analysis by the Sun-Sentinel newspaper found that the rollout of the state’s vaccination program being administered through pharmacies at Publix stores was bypassing many low-income neighborhoods with minority populations. Indigenous Americans, Blacks and Latinx populations have been among the hardest hit per capita when it comes to serious illness and deaths from COVID-19, according to the CDC.

Emma Boswell Dean, an assistant professor of health management and policy at University of Miami’s Herbert Business School, told CNBC that the for-profit model of retail food chains means they are less likely to operate stores in low income communities. The net result, she said, is that communities that lack access to nutritious grocery options are also going to be at a disadvantage when it comes to vaccine distribution. “You have communities hit twice,” she said. “You’re a food desert. Now you’re a vaccine desert.”

The state government in Tallahassee has said that it has begun supplying county health clinics with vaccines to help make sure that everyone who qualifies for a vaccine can get one.

Florida announced last week that it is expanding its program through more Publix locations as well as those operated by Fresco y Mas, Walmart and Winn-Dixie. A total of 6,500 pharmacies across the U.S., including those operated by Costco, CVS, Jewel-Osco, Kroger, Meijer, Rite Aid, Safeway and Walgreens, will get vaccines to immunize customers in groups prioritized by individual state governments.

The Biden administration’s plan being debated in Congress would allocate funds to vaccinate individuals in traditionally underserved communities, organizing partnerships with community-based groups and local healthcare providers and deploying the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to work with the National Guard and state and local teams. Mobile vaccination centers are also part of the plan to make sure that underserved urban and rural communities are not left high and dry.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you see as the biggest internal and external challenges facing retail pharmacies when it comes to immunizing large numbers of people against COVID-19? Do you think that pharmacies have a significant role to play in bringing COVID-19 vaccines to underserved areas or are other paths of distribution more likely to get large numbers of people vaccinated quickly?

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"I can confidently say that retail pharmacies and the trusted professionals who work in these settings will make a HUGE difference. "
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22 Comments on "Will retail pharmacies be the cure for America’s ‘vaccine deserts’?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

I believe that pharmacies can and will play a significant role in the vaccination effort. The key advantage of leveraging retail is vast distribution and access – for all communities, regardless of social/economic conditions. The biggest challenge in implementing this currently is the lack of vaccine supply, however this will abate as production continues to ramp up. The challenges internally may be the influx of people visiting the pharmacies to get the vaccines, and the potential additional exposure risk this may cause for store personnel.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

The more locations for people to get their vaccines, the better. The NFL announced their stadiums would be used to get large numbers of people their vaccines. Taking the vaccines to local pharmacies will be good for people who may not have the ability to get out of their neighborhoods. This is a great opportunity to reach typically underserved areas. The pharmacies will have to staff properly and need a plan to manage the flow of people coming in to get their shots.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

The biggest challenge is that they simply do not have the staff to handle it. It is challenging to pick up your medicine and with the pharmacist being the only one trained to give the shot, it makes it quite difficult to have the process run smoothly. More people are needed and fast.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

Without hesitation I can confidently say that retail pharmacies and the trusted professionals who work in these settings will make a HUGE difference. With 23,000 independent pharmacies, 23,000 chain pharmacies, and 15,000 grocery/mass locations, Americans can be assured accessibility and safety in the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Then you see things like today’s announcement of Walgreens and Uber teaming up to serve the underserved. You hear of independent pharmacy heroes going above and beyond. And the all players across the pharmacy industry stepping up to quickly activate their respective teams.

I’m proud to say I’ve worked alongside and on behalf of the majority of these organizations during my 29-year career with Hamacher Resource Group. This is what the retail pharmacy has been trained for! And the industry is more than ready.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

In a word — ACCESS. I read with interest and delight how Olivia Adams who, while on maternity leave with a new born and a toddler managed to design a user-friendly website for making vaccination appointments. Governments spend millions on IT matters and seem to mess it up every time. Olivia did it for free in 40 hours of her time. If her work is applied to every vaccine outlet (churches, stadiums, schools, retailers, etc.) problem solved!

Of course that assumes distribution is up to speed and we can’t count on that. I say let’s find the supply-chain version of Olivia! She’s out there somewhere.

Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust

Pharmacies are a natural distribution channel. They have infrastructure in place and can augment relatively quickly if needed.

But I see some bureaucratic red tape causing problems in vaccine distribution. New York has been in the news of late for this vaccine distribution woes. Much like masks vaccines are a state subject, so we should expect to have inconsistent rollout and political shenanigans.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Very few pharmacies have the infrastructure to handle the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Will they rent or buy refrigeration to keep the vaccines at minus 70 degrees?

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust
I think that retail pharmacies should and will play a vital role in getting vaccines into the arms of Americans. Rather than focus on one or two companies as the article does, I think it’s more important to recognize that logistically, pharmacies are already on the ground across America in urban, suburban and rural markets. I would like to see the maps that describe the overlap between food deserts and pharmacy deserts. My sense is the penetration for pharmacies is much better than grocers. Small towns are far more likely to have a small pharmacy than they are a grocer. In urban markets national chains are pretty well represented and easy to access. The infrastructure is in place, we should take advantage of it. Logistics of providing the vaccine? That’s a different question. There are two issues to resolve. First, the logistics of vaccine distribution have proven challenging. Reaching all the small local pharmacists is going to be a significant hurdle. Second, finding enough people to administer the injections is a challenge, especially in rural… Read more »
Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Walgreens opened up for appointments here in Wisconsin, beginning on Friday when they should have availability of direct Federal shipments. The effort has not yet been expanded to CVS or other competing pharmacies, but putting this program into the hands of national chains that already administer millions of other vaccines yearly is the smart play.

Just one catch, at least today: The Walgreens website has basically crashed today because of high usage, and I’m sure the issue isn’t just a local one. Every step of the way needs to be handled the right way, and this isn’t it.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Particularly, when the vaccines that do not require extreme refrigeration are approved, more pharmacies will be able to participate as they do with the flu vaccines every year.

When that happens and when there are enough, the pharmacies can handle them on a walk-in basis. But until that time, I believe that independents will not have the resources to participate. I am not even confident that the in-store pharmacies and national chains are constantly handling the protocols properly.

I got my first dose last week at a NYC hospital. My experience was that the teams were very professional and thorough. I can not imagine a retail pharmacy following the same protocols.

The solution for these deserts is for the local governments to provide vaccine clinics at schools or hospitals or churches. I like one solution in NYC for a desert in the Bronx — Yankee Stadium! If I were allowed, I would go there just to be able to say I got my shot at Yankee Stadium. Cool!

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

Living in a state (Colorado) that has both dense metro areas and also very underserved rural areas, I can appreciate just how much of a challenge this is. If we want herd immunity, at some point we are going to have to take the vaccine to where the people are rather than expect them to come to where the vaccine is. That’s why the J&J vaccine, even for its less than Pfizer efficacy, is so important, because it can actually make it to rural areas safely.

Independent pharmacies, county health organizations, and at some point probably other services that reach into rural communities are going to be needed. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see National Guard mobile vaccine units roll through some communities at some point. It’s time to get creative to get as much vaccine in as many arms as we possibly can.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust
This whole roll-out has been mind-bogglingly sloppy to me. Obviously the cold storage required for the current vaccines is an issue for pharmacies — but I have a really hard time understanding why the National Guard wasn’t called out to get this started. I mean, isn’t that their job? I’m lucky. I’m computer savvy, and very determined, and I have been fully vaccinated. And yes, it’s a relief! But it’s not easy to get done at all. The morass of websites, phone lines and stadium-based locations is crazy. And the differences by state are even crazier. I know of an 80 year old in Oregon whose number hasn’t come up yet. I think it’ll be easier for pharmacies to get involved once the more “traditional” vaccines come out and they don’t have the additional logistics of intense chillers. But why does everything have to be done at retail, exactly? Why can’t my doctor have a few vials? For “vaccine deserts” why not provide them to clinics? None of this makes any sense at all. I’m… Read more »
Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

The government is attempting to do something exceptionally complex with vaccination — to distribute the vaccine effectively AND broadly. The more restrictions, the less broad. The fewer restrictions, the more they are accused of missing effective distribution.

There is no perfect way to do this. From what I hear, while states lay down “rules,” those doing vaccinations would rather use the vaccine than be perfect with the rules. And that makes complete sense to me.

What about at-risk communities? Each state needs to sort that out. It’s difficult and will never be perfect. My sense is that no matter how smartly a state acts, it will be accused of mis-managing somehow. Because — that’s what happens in a complex situation like this.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

Pharmacies are the outlet of the future for follow up or annual shots. But there is no way I can see them being able to keep up with the traffic and needs until the initial shots are under control.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

The addition of retail pharmacies as vaccination centers will certainly help in the vaccine deserts but they by themselves are not the cure. Many of these vaccine deserts are also retail deserts. They will need to be augmented by other locations who can manage the requirements necessary to handle the vaccines and the issues surrounding the actual process administering them. All of this assumes they can get a sufficient supply.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

I think both chain drug stores and supermarket operators are on the front line of a problem they, in some way, helped to create. If you are in a lower income area odds are there isn’t a modern supermarket near you. Drug store? More likely, but there’s a similar problem there. The same is true if you live in a rural area. And if you live in a rural area with a significant lower income population, odds are you can score Oxycodone or meth far easier than any of the COVID-19 vaccines. So the first step to turning this around is acknowledging the problem. Next, any retailer with a pharmacy and access to a vaccine should test the practicality of setting up vaccination stations or possibly mobile clinics. Without retail pharmacies stepping up their game it is going to take us forever to achieve herd immunity.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Working with distribution channels that are already in place makes a lot of sense; there’s no need to re-invent the wheel. Not that it will be easy. Retail pharmacies will be faced with lack of supply and an influx of people visiting making it challenging to keep everyone safe and taken care of. All in all, benefits seem to far outweigh the costs.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

Agreed, Sterling. The upside to using pharmacies outweighs the risk. There have to be controls in place, adequate supply, and an organized approach. With those variables addressed, pharmacies will shine.

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

The biggest challenge facing the retail pharmacies’ role in the vaccine rollout is getting them enough vaccine to handle the demand. I feel that the only downside is that the pharmacist will be so busy delivering vaccine shots they will not have time to fill prescriptions.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Considering the size and scale necessary to distribute millions of vaccinations in a short amount of time, the retail pharmacies can absolutely step up their operations to fill a critical supply chain void. Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, and other retail pharmacies are already undergoing a significant business and technology transformation to be at the center of their customer’s health, wellness, beauty, fitness, pharmacy, and medical needs.

By leveraging their vast store fleets, the retail pharmacies have the supply chains, storefronts, staffing models, and capabilities to act as an extension of the hospitals to distribute and administer the critical Covid-19 vaccines. It will ultimately come down to execution, to ensure the safety and wellness of both the store associates and the customers.

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

Major drug chains and supermarket with pharmacies ought to set up mobile stations on wheels in so-called food and vaccine deserts to provide vaccines. That will be tricky because the vaccines need to be kept at very low temperatures. But that could be worked out with enough advance planning and notification in these communities.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

I think the question depends, if not solely then at least a lot, on how we define “community.” If it means on your same block, or a five minute walk away — standards often used for groceries to define “food deserts” — then the prospects aren’t very good. But this isn’t the same thing: it’s a one (or probably two) time event that needs only to be readily accessible by public transit, or a short drive away. By that metric, it looks a lot more promising. That’s not to say execution will be flawless, but of the many hurdles, I don’t think access is the largest one.

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Braintrust
"I can confidently say that retail pharmacies and the trusted professionals who work in these settings will make a HUGE difference. "
"Working with distribution channels that are already in place makes a lot of sense; there’s no need to re-invent the wheel."
"I think both chain drug stores and supermarket operators are on the front line of a problem they, in some way, helped to create."

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