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Eligible people can now sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations at 4,600 pharmacies across the United States. Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
  • The Biden administration is launching its plan to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to pharmacies across the country.
  • Initially, 1 million doses per week will be sent to 4,600 pharmacies, which include CVS and Walgreens.
  • Eventually, the program will be expanded to more than 40,000 pharmacies.
  • Pharmacy officials say they have the infrastructure and the experience to make the program work efficiently.

As pharmacies across the United States gear up for the Feb. 11 launch of on-site COVID-19 vaccines, pharmacy executives and health experts ask people to stock up on three things.

They urge people to solidify their ability to navigate appointment information online as well as document any underlying medical conditions. And, they ask folks to have patience. Lots of patience.

“We have the capacity to administer 10 million doses in 30 days within the 4,600 sites (in the first round of openings),” Kathleen Jaeger, senior vice president of pharmacy care and patient advocacy at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS), said in a press briefing last week addressing the Biden administration’s implementation of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.

“That’s 83 per store per day at seven per hour,” she said.

Those doses will begin going into arms on Feb. 11, beginning the process of rolling up to what’s hoped to be more than 40,000 pharmacy-based vaccination site locations.

That would be one vaccination location within 5 miles of nearly every person in the United States.

Experts say the program will take time, coordination, and most of all, expanded dose production.

What can the public expect?

Initially, 1 million vaccine doses per week will be distributed to 4,600 pharmacies nationwide.

Those sites were chosen strategically by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in coordination with cities, states, and counties to help reach underserved populations, said Kate Grusich, a CDC public affairs specialist.

“Jurisdictions made selections based on a number of factors, including the number of stores, the ability to reach some of the populations most at risk for severe illness from COVID-19 (those over 65 years of age, socially vulnerable communities), and alignment with their existing vaccination plan,” Grusich told Healthline.

The initial selections are just a starting point. Eventually, pharmacy partners will provide COVID-19 vaccine in every state or territory where they have retail or long-term care pharmacy locations, Grusich said.

For now, you can locate which pharmacies are up and running with vaccinations at this CDC website.

Who can book an appointment now?

It depends, Grusich said, on your location.

“Federal pharmacy partners will follow guidance from their jurisdictions on which populations are eligible for COVID-19 vaccination and will screen individuals prior to vaccination to ensure their retail locations are following the jurisdiction’s vaccination plan,” she said.

The way it will work is similar to other vaccination efforts.

Pharmacists across the United States have given out more than 20 million flu vaccinations this year alone, according to the NACDS.

Dr. Kevin Ban, the chief medical officer at Walgreens, said the process for getting a vaccination at a pharmacy now is pretty much how it will look going forward.

The first step, he told Healthline, is to check your state’s COVID-19 website to find out who’s eligible in your area.

Once you’ve found that you’re eligible and locate a Walgreens or other site via the CDC location link or your pharmacy website, you can register for your vaccination appointment online.

For now, Ban said, that will mean registering for two dates, since both currently approved vaccines require two doses spaced out over time.

“We really want to confirm those second appointments,” he said.

Ban said Walgreens pharmacists will be asking for proof of eligibility.

“Age is easy to verify,” he said. “Other things may be more of a challenge.”

Will they turn away someone who doesn’t have that proof?

Ban said at the end of the day, much will be based on trust.

“We want to get the vaccine into arms,” he said.

Anyone with an underlying medical condition may want to reach out to their health providers for a note of documentation and tuck it away until their time comes, he said.

On your appointment day, you’ll get your shot, wait 15 minutes while being observed, and then head home with your vaccination card filled out and your second date on the horizon.

That said, Ban warns that the first days and even week of the pharmacy program could mean more waiting.

“People confuse eligibility with availability,” he said. “What will solve that is simple: availability.”

Onisis Stefas, PharmD, vice president and chief pharmacy officer for Northwell Health, told Healthline that while he’s eager for everyone to have access to the vaccine, this rollout makes sense not just for those who are hit hardest by the pandemic but for all.

“It’s very important to get [the immunocompromised] first,” he said.

Stefas said that the average person who contracts the new coronavirus and has symptoms is usually sick for about 10 days. Those who have underlying conditions can have COVID-19 for 4 weeks or longer.

That not only puts a strain on medical resources, but it also provides the virus with more opportunities.

“The longer this is in the body, the more chance it has to mutate,” Stefas said.

In other words, getting those who would be more affected by the disease to the front of the line now is key to tamping down mutations, he said.

For that reason and more, he urges the public to be patient.

“And it is absolutely critical at this time to socially distance, wear masks, and wash your hands,” he said. “Now more than ever.”

What happens next for the public will depend greatly on how quickly doses can be manufactured and delivered.

However, pharmacy officials feel confident they’ll be ready to ramp up locations all the way to the 40,000 goal as soon as doses are available.

“We have the infrastructure in place. We’re ready,” Ethan Slavin, a spokesperson for CVS, told Healthline. “We understand the pent-up excitement.”

Stefas said that while it’s frustrating to wait, the public should feel confident in the pharmacy’s role in getting the nation vaccinated.

“It’s very important that the vaccine get into all communities,” he said.

The pharmacist, Stefas said, is the answer to that.

“It’s a familiar place, a familiar person, and a credible source to so many,” he said.

Using chains first, Stefas said, “makes sense in terms of standardization. They also know how to handle an adverse reaction, should they come across one.”

Ban said Walgreens’ recent work in distributing vaccinations in long-term care facilities along with the pharmacy’s history of providing vaccines has given them the foundation.

Ban hopes that enough doses come through to get all sites operating by early spring.

Another important aspect going forward will be the tight performance metrics that the CDC has placed on vaccination sites.

Jaeger said each site will be held to metrics for waste, social vulnerability reach, and data input.

That, she said, should help the program run smoothly when those doses are ready and hundreds of millions of people are eligible.

“We have metrics in place,” she said. “The vaccine will not sit on shelves. They’ll be put in arms.”

The Biden administration has also announced plans to distribute vaccines to community health centers as well as establish “super sites,” such as sports stadiums for mass vaccinations.

Officials say once all these programs are operating, it’ll be a matter of people signing up and people being encouraged to get vaccinated.

“Hesitancy is a real thing,” Ban said. “We have already done work to help people understand the need, but we need to do more.”