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A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic administered by CVS professionals at an assisted living facility in Maine. Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
  • Pharmacy officials say they are ready to handle the next phase of COVID-19 vaccinations now that the federal government has opened up the process to people 65 and older.
  • Walgreens and CVS have already been coordinating vaccination clinics at long-term care facilities.
  • The pharmacies will need to coordinate storage and administering the vaccines as well as discuss issues with customers who are hesitant to get inoculated.

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Federal officials this week advised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to open up COVID-19 vaccinations to people 65 years and older as well as anyone younger with high-risk comorbidities.

Pharmacies across the nation said they are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Pharmacies in New York State will begin administering vaccinations on January 14.

Other states will roll out when ready.

Pharmacy officials say have been gearing up for this program since the start of the pandemic.

“I recall one of the first conference calls that National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS) members had with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about COVID-19 — back in the first quarter of 2020. The CDC emphasized how crucial it was for pharmacies to do all they could to stay open because they knew how vital their services would be,” Steven C. Anderson, FASAE, the president and chief executive officer of NACDS, told Healthline.

“Science has given us reason for hope and for confidence,” Anderson said. “And now we need to get these safe and effective vaccines to the American people — efficiently and equitably.”

Operation Warp Speed has already partnered with both CVS and Walgreens to inoculate the residents of long-term care facilities nationwide.

The effort is well under way, Dr. Kevin Ban, Walgreens’ chief medical officer, told Healthline.

Ban said “there are things we are all learning” that will help as the inoculation process for the general public begins.

Last week, Ban said, Walgreens was able to speed up the pace in assisted living facilities, administering twice as many vaccinations as the week before.

He expects to wrap up the first doses in skilled nursing facilities by January 25 and move on to more nursing facilities and now, the public at large as well.

“Despite all the headwinds, we are on track,” he said.

CVS and Walgreens are overseeing the scheduling and coordination of on-site clinic dates at each facility.

Company employees are receiving and managing the vaccines and other supplies as well as ensuring cold chain management, administering the vaccine, and providing records of who was vaccinated and with what — all key components they will need to understand when launching in stores.

It is, Ban said, vital and humbling work that he and his team across the country are embracing.

“There is a deep sense of purpose and mission in our organization,” Ban said. “There is so much enthusiasm. Everyone cares deeply about this.”

While the assisted living facility effort has informed them on nuances and helped them nail down a process, Ban said, the vaccination process in general — as well as the need to be ready for a pandemic — is nothing new to the Walgreens team.

“We’ve been building a vaccination program over the past decade,” he said.

Walgreens provides flu vaccinations annually.

In 2009, he said, they were called into action for H1N1, the most recent pandemic threat in the nation before COVID-19.

Like then, Ban said, they are ready to be called on now.

“Our confidence and enthusiasm comes from all that experience,” he said. “We do a lot of [what will need to be done] already. We have processes in place.”

Pharmacies across the nation are currently putting the wheels in motion to be ready.

Start-up dates at individual sites will depend much on state choices as well as vaccination availability.

Anderson said his group is ready and capable of giving 100 million vaccinations in a month’s time.

Both CVS — whose executives turned down multiple interview requests for this story — and Walgreens will be set up to administer vaccinations on-site as soon as the availability is there.

Both will be able to draw on experience in COVID-19 testing in some locations as well.

At Walgreens, Ban said, details are still being hammered out, but they expect to draw from their annual flu vaccination process, amping it up for requirements the new vaccination may have.

There will be challenges, he admitted, the foremost in his mind being one they can begin working on now: vaccination hesitancy.

Here, Ban said, is where he believes the company’s position of being known in their neighborhoods will help.

“We have exceptional healthcare experts embedded in the community,” he said. “This is the power of knowing your community and the people there.”

Walgreens has begun putting out information via their website and public relations department. They will also encourage their pharmacy teams to have informed discussions with customers.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert and professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee, told Healthline that placing a vaccination distribution center in a familiar and trusted spot makes sense.

“It’s a good idea. It brings the vaccine closer to the people,” he said.

Schaffner has been pleased with what he’s seen with both companies in long-term care facilities, but he said the general population roll out will have more to it, including managing worries of customers and timing the second doses.

“They will not only have to manage the vaccination,” he said, “they’ll have to manage the people, too.”

Among other issues is where people will sit for 15 minutes after their vaccination and who will watch them to make sure they aren’t having a reaction.

Schaffner also cautioned the pharmacy companies to know that people wanting to discuss the vaccination will need more time than a brief moment.

Ban said Walgreens is still working on logistical details and will have more information soon.

He expects they will utilize a combination of “old school” with a paper card listing the person’s vaccination details as well as email and texting follow-ups to remind people of their second dose.

The company is also hiring more medical experts to help with the process and administration of the vaccinations.

In a press release, Dr. Troyen Brennan, the chief medical officer at CVS, said his company is motivated to make this work smoothly.

“Our pharmacists, nurse practitioners, and pharmacy technicians have been an invaluable community resource since the pandemic began and are ready to play a critical role in the vaccination effort,” he said in the release sent to Healthline.

Schaffner said he feels confident in the springtime rollout for all. He expects as programs like the Walgreens and CVS assisted living facilities program wrap up, we will see more “smooshing” of phases.

In other words, as more vaccines are available and those administering them perfect the process, we could see more categories of people approved for their doses.

“For the general population, we are in line with what the government and Dr. Fauci are saying,” Ban said. “Late spring we should be ready to have this available for all.”

He cautions, though, that, as they saw in the skilled nursing facilities, it may be a paced uptake, with vaccinations given at a quicker pace as experience is gained.

“It’s important for consumers to understand that vaccine availability will not be like a light switch that we can immediately turn on, but rather, like a faucet that will gradually roll out to more and more people as more vaccine supply is available,” said Ban.

“We’re committed to partnering closely with CDC, Operation Warp Speed, and state governments to help some of the country’s most vulnerable populations get vaccinated against COVID-19.”

When that time comes, Ban said, he hopes that the public feels comfortable asking about — and receiving — their doses in a familiar place.

Anderson said with 90 percent of Americans within 5 miles of a pharmacy, that should be doable.

Ban feels it’s the right spot.

“This is the power of knowing the community around you,” he said. “You can help the public through something like this.”