Pharmacies push to join COVID-19 vaccination effort as distribution accelerates

Ultimately, provincial health authorities are responsible for deciding how to distribute the vaccine to their residents.

MONTREAL – Pharmacies are working hard to get involved in Canada’s immunization effort, showcasing their extensive networks and experience in vaccine distribution as potential selling points.

National chains Shoppers Drug Mart Corp. and London Drugs Ltd. say they have had conversations with the federal and provincial governments about cooperative vaccine distribution once doses become more widely available, although there are currently no plans to do so.

“Pharmacies are ready and willing right now to help with this injection of these COVID vaccines,” said Chris Chiew, managing director of pharmacy for London Drugs. “We’re reaching every corner of every province across Canada, and by involving all pharmacists, you are actually able to get a larger percentage of the population in a faster amount of time.

A partnership with pharmacies could be a welcome opportunity for provincial health authorities in Canada, who face the heavy logistical task of distributing tens of millions of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021.

So far, the government has tightly controlled the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines since the first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were administered in Canada on December 14. But the federal government’s approval of Moderna’s vaccine last week, along with the planned approval of a number of other candidate vaccines in the coming months, means the distribution effort will soon intensify.

The federal government has said it expects vaccination of the general population to begin in April 2021. Ultimately, provincial health authorities are responsible for deciding how to distribute the vaccine to their residents, and the actual deployment. might work differently in different parts of the country.

The awareness of pharmacies comes as they have taken a growing role in public health in recent years, expanding their activities beyond simply filling prescriptions. The result has been a new area of ​​growth for pharmacy bottom line results as they include vaccines and other basic health services such as travel health consultations among their offerings.

What started with the flu shot has now expanded to include travel vaccines and immunizations against other diseases like shingles, said Jeff Leger, president of Shoppers Drug Mart.

“The role of the pharmacist has changed,” said Leger.

Pharmacies’ experience with vaccine distribution means that they have already understood many of the logistical challenges associated with COVID-19 vaccines, Chiew and Léger said, from keeping doses cold during transport and ensure that pharmacists are properly trained in their administration.

Pharmacies have also implemented digital notification systems to communicate with their customers, which could be useful in keeping in touch with vaccinees, the vast majority of whom will have to return for a second injection around a month after their initial dose.

Consumers may ultimately prefer to receive their injection at a nearby pharmacy instead of a larger clinic, said Kelly Grindrod, professor at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Waterloo. Pharmacies have become the default option for many people looking to get vaccinated, Grindrod said, a change from a decade ago when people mostly got them from doctors’ offices.

This change in attitude could make pharmacies an attractive distribution channel, as governments will want to make the vaccination process as easy as possible to encourage people to go, she added.

“Convenience is an important thing when you vaccinate people,” said Grindrod.

An alternative to using pharmacies would be to offer the vaccine in a smaller number of locations run by provincial health authorities, in the same way the COVID-19 test was administered in Canada, said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

Culbert said it would be cheaper and more efficient to distribute the vaccine this way, as it would reduce the logistics costs of delivering the doses to more places. Having pharmacists inject the vaccine rather than public health officials would also be more expensive, as they are paid for by injection, he said.

“I’m not saying pharmacies couldn’t do it,” Culbert said. “I’m saying that concentrating our resources through a centralized flow of vaccination clinics is the way to go.”

Chiew and Leger both cited their pharmacies’ efforts to distribute the flu vaccine amid the pandemic as an example of how they could be effective partners with governments for the deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine.

With the exception of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which must be stored at extremely low temperatures, the vaccines in development can all be handled and distributed like regular flu shots, Chiew and Leger said.

Neither London Drugs nor Shoppers expect to play a major role in the distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which until a week ago was the only COVID vaccine approved in Canada. Still, London Drugs has purchased several specialty freezers, each varying between $ 10,000 and $ 20,000, in case the company is called upon to handle the vaccine, Chiew said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 31, 2020.

Jon Victor, The Canadian Press