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Mass Vaccination Efforts Thrust Pharmacies To Center Of COVID-19 Fight


Millions, if not most, Americans will likely get their COVID-19 vaccines at a drugstore or at events hosted by pharmacies at local gyms and churches. Mass vaccination is familiar territory for pharmacies. It's also fraught with new challenges this time around, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: About two decades ago, most states didn't even allow pharmacists to administer a flu vaccine. Now pharmacies are contracting with federal and state governments and are key players for the most ambitious vaccination effort in history.

JOHN BECKNER: Trying to vaccinate most of America - you can't do that without the involvement of pharmacies.

NOGUCHI: John Beckner is senior director at the National Community Pharmacists Association. He says many communities lack access to public health clinics. But 90% of Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy. So in many rural or underserved areas, the pharmacist is the default health provider. They have the rapport with customers. Their databases track patients' age, health condition and contact information.

BECKNER: That's where pharmacies really have an advantage.

NOGUCHI: Today, pharmacies are being thrust into a new, more critical public health role, one that comes with novel new challenges - namely, how to distribute vaccines safely and quickly to a nation clamoring over limited supply. The vaccine isn't yet available to the general public or at most pharmacy retailers. But as that changes and more populations become eligible to receive it, health officials fear vaccine-seekers forming long lines could spread the virus. So, Beckner says, systems must be set up so patients can keep a safe social distance and so they can be monitored afterward for allergic reactions.

BECKNER: The pharmacy's going to need to be the gatekeeper.

NOGUCHI: And there are already eager people banging at the gate asking, when can I get my COVID-19 vaccine at the local drugstore? There's no easy answer to that question, and much of that has to do with a shifting vaccine rollout. Rina Shah is vice president of operations for Walgreens.

RINA SHAH: Inventory isn't consistent across the entire country.

NOGUCHI: That supply is determined by the federal government working with states and local health departments. But Shah says not only does that supply change; so do various state and federal rules over who gets priority treatment. That, in turn, makes it hard to tell the public what to expect. Then there is the issue of waitlists.

SHAH: A lot of patients have asked, you know, can I just put my name down? So we're working on being able to set up a way so that we can get that information separately.

NOGUCHI: But there, too, there's no central database that rank orders residents by eligibility. Shah says some states are creating online registries - people input information like age or occupation to determine vaccine eligibility. Many pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens, are also setting up their own software to track and notify local residents when they're eligible. That will also help schedule appointments for both the initial shot and the follow-up booster.

SHAH: And then, only then after they've scheduled it do they know the location of where to go.

NOGUCHI: But that isn't happening yet. And there are numerous stories of people receiving shots out of turn, often because unrefrigerated doses of vaccine would otherwise go bad. Mitch Rothholz heads government policy for the American Pharmacists Association. He says pharmacists must be allowed to make those kinds of judgment calls. They want to be fair, but also not waste vaccine.

MITCH ROTHHOLZ: One of the things that providers don't want to be placed in is the role of being a cop.

NOGUCHI: That, he says, is not a role the industry is equipped to take on.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.