ALEXANDRIA, VA – With the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granting emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, initial immunizations are set to start today. The New York Times reports that 2.9 million doses of the vaccine are headed to “designated locations, mostly hospitals” in all 50 states. With authorization secured, states can place their orders and the massive distribution effort can begin in earnest.
From the beginning, officials at the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) expected that independent pharmacies would be included in the effort, but NCPA staff took no chances. Months of correspondence between NCPA and HHS ensued, and those talks have all but assured that community pharmacies will have access to the vaccines. “You could not have a successful COVID vaccination program without the participation of community pharmacies,” says John Beckner, RPh, NCPA senior director of Strategic Initiatives. “It would be disastrous.”
The nuts and bolts of vaccine storage could prove a bit difficult, but independent pharmacies are nimble and used to change. Pfizer’s vaccine, for example, must be kept at -70 Celsius (-94 Fahrenheit).
“You can’t get that with a conventional freezer,” explains Hannah Fish, PharmD, NCPA associate director of Strategic Initiatives (pictured). “Fortunately, Pfizer is shipping the vaccine in what resembles pizza boxes. The boxes can keep the vaccines cold by adding dry ice. It’s not prohibitive, but military precision is required. Independent pharmacies are up to the task.”
“Once the vaccine comes out of the freezer, it must be thawed before being administered,” Beckner adds. “The pharmacies are going to have to be strategic in their scheduling to avoid wasting the vaccine or compromising it.”
There were early concerns that tighter restrictions (particularly for administering to children) in various states could limit vaccine distribution in some regions, but Beckner confirms that September guidelines issued by HHS eliminated those concerns. Now all pharmacies may order and administer vaccines down to children age three.
Fish anticipates that pharmacists will not have to dress in full PPE garb to administer the vaccine, particularly since most (if not all) patients will not be actively ill. Instead, she foresees face shield, mask, and gloves as the likely precautions.
Beckner and Fish believe that the familiar faces and friendly nature of many independent pharmacies may also have a positive impact on overall utilization. “There will be some vaccine hesitancy,” Beckner says. “Pharmacists are able to assure patients that they will be safe.”
Setting up realistic expectations may well be another function, because Fish believes, “It’s naïve to think we’re going back to normal. The vaccine will get us closer, but there are unknowns. For example, we don’t know if we will need it every year.”
While inoculations have started in the U.K., no one in the U.S. (outside of vaccine trials) has received a dose. With that in mind, Beckner cautions; first things first. “We should be thankful for a vaccine that has been brought to market. Now we need to execute on the program, and community pharmacies are an important cog in that machine.”
“The vaccine program is a key to defeating COVID-19, and defeating the virus is the key to our economy,” adds NCPA CEO B. Douglas Hoey, pharmacist, MBA. “From the start of the pandemic, community pharmacists have been on the front lines, taking care of their patients as essential health care providers…Community pharmacies outnumber any of the largest chains, and they very often serve populations for whom there are no other accessible health care providers. Defeating COVID-19 means relying on community pharmacies.”