Retail’s role in COVID-19 vaccinations

Retailers including Walmart, Walgreens and Kroger are rising to the challenge
Fiona Soltes
NRF Contributor

As a weary world lifts its head toward COVID-19 vaccines, retailers are uniquely positioned to offer additional support. The public may see the industry’s involvement as simply providing a place to receive a shot.

Others, however, are calling on retailers to help quell fears as trusted community members, provide consistent messaging, assist state governments and ensure their own employees are well protected. All this while working through logistics, staffing, storing, tracking, distribution — and facing an often-impatient public.

It’s a tall order, and one that keeps evolving.

Covid-19 resources

Learn more about retail and the Coronavirus pandemic here.

Vaccine administration

Early on, CVS and Walgreens were tapped as part of the Trump Administration’s Operation Warp Speed to provide and administer the vaccines to residents of long-term care facilities nationwide. Walgreens already had “deep experience,” having administered more than 150,000 off-site vaccinations since 2015, says Rina Shah, the company’s group vice president of pharmacy operations.

The company also was at the forefront of the H1N1 vaccine distribution effort, which “paved the way for pharmacists to administer CDC-recommended vaccines,” Shah says. In 2009, Walgreens had roughly 8,000 pharmacists licensed to administer flu shots; now there are more than 27,000 and climbing.

Today, Walgreens’ technology and data infrastructure will be “critical” in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, Shah says, “especially those that require two doses and require tracking and patient follow-up. We already support and report state registry data and are rapidly updating our IT system to meet any additional reporting requirements.”

Also familiar ground for Walgreens: working with series-based vaccines and vaccines that require cold storage, as well as reaching underserved and rural areas.

Increasing confidence

Steven C. Anderson, president and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, says pharmacies have long been essential partners in addressing health care disparities; COVID-19 will be no different.

“There is a pharmacy within five miles of 90 percent of Americans, and pharmacies also will be using remote vaccination clinics to help reach individuals where they are,” he says. “It’s also important to emphasize that ensuring equitable access involves helping to facilitate the conversations within communities that ultimately can lead to improved vaccine confidence. Pharmacists are highly trusted and can play an important role in those conversations.”

"There is a pharmacy within five miles of 90 percent of Americans."

Steven C. Anderson, National Association of Chain Drug Stores

Mitchel Rothholz, chief of governance and state affiliates with the American Pharmacists Association, is of similar mind. He sees pharmacies — whether chain, independent, clinic-based or otherwise — as having a crucial role in increasing vaccine confidence and decreasing vaccine hesitancy overall.

“This is not the first vaccine we have had to help the public understand the importance of,” he says. “We have to have consistent messaging that we can reinforce and deliver to our communities.”

That requires staying abreast of current medical recommendations and messages from state public health and government leaders. But it’s also important, Rothholz says, for companies to pay attention to their staff throughout the process. That could mean hiring, allocating dollar resources and/or automating processes if it can help relieve the burden of balancing the COVID-19 vaccine with other operations such as testing, treatment and unrelated continuity of care.

Both APhA and NACDS are part of the National Associations’ COVID Vaccine Leadership Council, a coalition of 19 health care and public health organizations aimed at strategizing, fostering discussion and exchanging information and ideas. An “all hands on deck” approach is required, Rothholz says.

Trusted partners

Sally Susman, chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer, recently joined the “Retales from the Frontline” podcast with host Matt Rubel. She spoke about research on “which voices have the most resonance and the most impact,” and it’s “very clear that people want to hear from people they know … . Retailers are known to people.”

As such, Susman said, now is the time for retailers to not only communicate but to “overcommunicate.” “People are anxious,” she said. “They need more information, not less.” She also hopes retailers will be proactive in reaching out to governors to ask about state distribution plans and how they can help.

Retailers across the board are rising to the challenge. Walmart announced in December it had been preparing its more than 5,000 Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies to receive doses, including ensuring the presence of freezers and dry ice for storage; entering into agreements with states as needed; putting processes in place to inform people about timing of first and second doses and to report successful vaccinations; and educating associates so they’ll be ready to receive the vaccine if they desire once eligible.

Hy-Vee said in December it was seeking to hire 1,000 pharmacy technicians across its eight-state region to help with both COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution.

Kroger Health also announced it would hire almost 1,000 health care personnel, including pharmacy technicians, to help with the effort, in addition to training current associates. Kroger Health, the health care division of the Kroger Co., has 2,200 pharmacies and 220 clinics in 35 states, serving more than 14 million customers.

According to press materials, Kroger Health has facilitated more than 250,000 COVID-19 tests since April. In October, it also launched rapid antibody tests to help inform patients if they might have been previously infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Supply chain considerations

Niall Murphy, CEO of IoT pioneer Evrythng, notes that vaccine distribution is going to put unprecedented pressure on the global logistics infrastructure. “With port and air transport already constrained, vaccine distribution will stress these limited resources further, taking priority for limited capacities already being competed over,” Murphy says.

“Retailers therefore have to bulk up on inventory in-country and in regional or local distribution hubs to mitigate risks of not being able to meet demand. Recovery for physical retail footfall is likely to take some time despite growing vaccine distribution with consumer confidence likely to lag, and the massive momentum in ecommerce built up over a year fundamentally shifting consumer behavior.”

Retailers, he says, must be “on top of their supply chains and their logistics networks with real-time intelligence, and continue to focus on innovating their digital retail experiences.”

There’s great concern, too, over counterfeit threats, as “authentication and traceability standards have yet to be established across global and national networks. In addition, there are concerns over transparency of vaccine distribution to ensure public and donor funds are effectively and equitably applied.”

Collaborations are being formed to coordinate response and pre-empt challenges but limited end-to-end visibility in the world’s supply systems is proving “an enormous barrier.”

Taking care of employees

And what of retail employees, who have already endured an unimaginable year? In mid-December, NRF submitted a letter to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices at the CDC, requesting that the retail workforce be among those with early access to the vaccines.

NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay reasoned that retailers had been on the front lines throughout the pandemic, “protecting associates, serving customers and keeping the communities in which they live and work safe and healthy.”

Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy with NRF, says part of the organization’s role is sharing information with members, advocating on relevant issues and providing opportunities for networking and benchmarking best practices.

“There are a lot of employee-related issues surrounding the vaccine,” Gold says. “When to get it, how to get it, should it be required or not — those are all issues we’re trying to work through right now.” Paying attention to these things, he says, “is critically important.”

In short, even as manufacturing, distribution and administration plans move ahead, the story continues to unfold.

“The term that we really need to adhere to is ‘patience,’” Rothholz says. “There are going to be bumps in the road. There are going to be allocation issues … . We can do all the planning we want, but until we actually have the supply in our hands, there’s no guarantee of what we will be able to deliver.”

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