Local pharmacists step up COVID-19 vaccination efforts

These are just your regular neighborhood pharmacists, but some are now wearing superhero capes.

Local drugstore owners are filling the gaps as federal, state and county authorities across the country struggle to step up essential vaccinations to crush the COVID-19 pandemic. In some small towns across the United States, an independent pharmacy is the only local place residents can get their COVID-19 vaccine.

President Joe Biden recently celebrated the injection of the 50 millionth dose of COVID-19 vaccine since its inauguration. But the huge undertaking has been hampered by vaccine shortages and concerns about the access of marginalized communities to vaccines.

The hope is that local pharmacies will now play a key role in vaccinating more Americans. They have become vaccine suppliers by reaching out to state health officials and the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 Vaccination, which distributes vaccines to independent pharmacy networks, as well as large national channels.

The Biden administration’s coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said at the start of the program last month that around 6,500 pharmacies will receive a total of 1 million doses, with more pharmacies joining the program as vaccine production increases. was increasing. However, the program does not completely fill the gaps – more than 400 rural counties do not have a retail pharmacy included in the partnership.

Vaccinations require long hours and administrative work, and there is little or no money for pharmacy owners. They don’t have to pay for the COVID-19 vaccine like flu and other vaccines do, but they do have an administrative fee that they may be able to recoup when patients have insurance. Yet money is not their immediate concern.

Adam Bayer and his wife distributed injections at their store, Hillcrest Pharmacy in Vernon, Texas. Labor can be strenuous – the first batch of 100 doses took them a day and a half to administer. In addition to administering the vaccine, they should monitor patients for 15 minutes for any signs of an allergic reaction.

Bayer applied to become a vaccinator because he believed he could help fight the pandemic. He was proactive and contacted clients.

“We’re calling patients who we know aren’t online,” he says. “My prayer is that we don’t leave people behind.”

Good Neighbor Pharmacy, one of the networks whose members participate in the Federal Retail Pharmacy program, has so far received 75,000 doses for pharmacies in Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Texas and Guam, Jenni Zilka said, senior vice-president of the network. . These doses began arriving the week of February 11.

A total of 21 companies participate in the Federal Retail Pharmacy program, including large drugstore and grocery chains and mass merchants like Costco and Walmart. However, not all of the big chains like CVS, Rite-Aid, and Walgreen distribute vaccines in every state they are in.

The program gives a boost to independents who have been losing ground to national retailers for decades. In 2015, independents made up 36% of the 61,000 pharmacies in the United States, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association, a professional group. In 2019, they represented 35%, with the total number of pharmacies rising to 61,480.

Pharmacists who smile and nod as customers collect their routine prescriptions are now greeted with applause and tears from customers, first responders and residents of privacy centers in communities across the country. across the country.

The pharmacists themselves are just as emotional.

“The ability to call an 85-year-old and say, ‘I’m going to give you a vaccine’ is quite a profound experience,” says Chris Antypas, co-owner of Asti’s South Hills Pharmacy in Pittsburgh, which distributed several of them. one hundred doses.

In addition to giving COVID-19 injections in their stores, pharmacists have also set up mass vaccination clinics. They are already experienced in distributing vaccines – for years they have administered influenza, pneumonia, shingles and other vaccines. But they are required to take additional training before they can administer COVID-19 vaccines: they must learn how to handle and store the vaccine, and unlike other vaccines, they must notify health officials who receive the vaccines, and the name of the manufacturer of each dose.

Matt Hopp owns what’s called a closed-door pharmacy – they specialize in the packaging and delivery of medications to assisted living centers and nursing homes in the Atlanta area. So far, Guardian Pharmacy has administered 1,500 doses to people living with assistance who have come to clinics while driving. Hopp says he will bill Medicare and insurance companies later.

“We are focusing more on the dissemination of the vaccine and in the weapons,” he says.

Many pharmacists, especially those who run mass clinics, receive help from their communities. School districts, fire departments, homeowners with empty stores have offered to use their space, Antypas says.

Mayank Amin, who set up mass clinics in suburban Philadelphia, enlisted the help of doctors and other medical professionals who volunteered to administer injections, sometimes as many as 1,000 on a eight hour period. Amin, owner of Skippack Pharmacy in Skippack Township, Pa., Also responded to requests for additional clinics.

“As soon as word got out that we were doing this, we started getting calls from different counties and mayors,” Amin says.

Like other pharmacists, the owners of the Ochoa Pharmacy had to give Texas health officials detailed information about the population they serve and their physical factory, including how they would store and administer the vaccine. COVID-19. The Ochoa family, who own two pharmacies in the city of Edinburgh, even had to tell the state the model number of their refrigerators and how they would record the temperatures at which the vaccine would be stored.

“When we got the email saying we were going to get the vaccine, we started crying,” says Alessandra Ochoa. Her family’s pharmacies are located in Hidalgo County, an area hard hit by the virus.

Pharmacists have had to cope with the same uncertain pace of vaccine distribution as hospitals and other medical facilities. They fill out surveys that include estimates of how many doses they need, but they don’t know how many doses they’ll get – or if they’ll get any at all.

“You don’t want to be excited and get zero,” Amin says. But when the vaccine arrives, Amin says he needs to be quick and find a location for a clinic. But despite the stress of assembling a clinic, Amin manages to lighten up the distribution of the vaccines – he will arrive dressed in a superhero costume, with a red cape.

People who get vaccinated are overwhelmed with gratitude. When Guardian Pharmacy employees arrive with the vaccine, the residents of the assisted living facility greet them with applause. And Ochoa has had many deeply moving moments.

“They pray while they receive it – praying the Hail Mary, the Our Father, and tears are streaming down their faces,” she said.

(Image credit: AP)

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