A pharmacist helps a customer at a Walgreens pharmacy in Wheeling, Illinois.
Walgreens said it expects to get its first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine on Dec. 21 and start giving shots to nursing home residents and staff members in the days leading up to Christmas.
The national drugstore chain will play an instrumental role in the early rollout of the much-anticipated vaccination. Walgreens and CVS Health struck deals with the federal government to vaccinate staff and residents at long-term care facilities, which most states have put at the top of the priority list along with health-care workers for receiving Pfizer and Moderna’s much-awaited Covid-19 vaccines. Pfizer’s vaccine is expected to win emergency clearance from the Food and Drug Administration imminently while Moderna’s approval is expected to soon follow.
The start of vaccinations at nursing homes will represent a significant milestone in the coronavirus pandemic because long-term care facilities have been particularly hard hit with Covid-19 outbreaks and deaths. They are typically home to older Americans who have underlying health conditions, making them more vulnerable to develop severe cases of the disease and potentially to die from it.
Rick Gates, senior vice president of pharmacy and healthcare at Walgreens, shared the timing and more details about the rollout in an interview with CNBC. He said he hopes the vaccinations at long-term care facilities gives Americans more comfort and confidence in the vaccine. For example, he said, Walgreens’ staff can learn more about the typical side effects, such as soreness near the injection site, so they can better counsel patients and reduce anxiety or alarm.
“It’s going to also help us from an education perspective because there are a lot saying that they may not get the vaccine,” he said. “The more we have from a practical application perspective, then we can educate more broadly on the safety protocols that we’re seeing with the vaccines as well as we expand into larger populations.”
The vaccine’s distribution could become a hopeful inflection point during a particularly dark stretch of the coronavirus pandemic. The single-day death toll from the coronavirus in the U.S. hit an all-time high on Wednesday with 3,124 fatalities, according to CNBC’s analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. The daily death toll surpassed the number of people killed on 9/11 and the total killed in the Pearl Harbor attack.
The Food and Drug Administration has yet to officially approve a Covid-19 vaccine, but Commissioner Stephen Hahn earlier Friday said the agency was working “rapidly” to grant emergency use authorization for Pfizer and BioNTech‘s vaccine. On Thursday, a panel of outside advisors recommended the FDA grant limited clearance to the vaccine, which has proven to be 95% in large-scale clinical trials.
That is the final hurdle before the multi-step process of Covid-19 vaccines arriving at nursing homes can be finalized at the state level and then ultimately begin.
“We’re ready and certainly excited to get vaccines to start to help America pivot past this challenging time,” Gates said.
States will determine how much of their initial vaccine allocation will go to health-care workers at hospitals and how much will go to long-term care facilities.
Walgreens, which is working with FedEx to receive vaccine shipments, has designated some of its drugstores as hubs that will keep doses in special freezers and have dry ice on hand, Gates said. Pfizer’s vaccine, in particular, requires ultra-cold storage at negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Gates said those vaccine doses will be taken to long-term care facilities for on-site clinics that are staffed by two to 15 people, depending on the size of the facility.
Walgreens has more than 27,000 pharmacists trained to administer vaccines. The company said it’s hiring between 8,000 and 9,000 pharmacy team members to support the Covid-19 vaccine and other related efforts, such as testing.
About 30,000 nursing homes and assisted living facilities have chosen Walgreens to administer the vaccine, and the company expects to make between two to three visits per nursing home, Gates said. That’s because both Pfizer’s vaccine and another leading candidate from Moderna require two doses a few weeks apart.
The Trump administration’s vaccine czar, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, has said “significantly noticeable” side effects were reported in between 10% to 15% of trial participants for those vaccines. For that reason, some nursing home operators have expressed concerns over the number of visits per facility, saying it’s important to have opportunities to stagger the dates staff receive shots.
They worry that if their entire staff is vaccinated on the same day, side effects from the shot may result in numerous staff members having to take off a day or two off work, leaving the facility short on nurses and other workers.
Gates acknowledged those concerns and said Walgreens would adapt its administration plans if the side effects are seen in the broader population.
“Obviously, we’ll have to be flexible in how we’re going to support long-term care facilities because they still need to service and take care of the residents of those long-term care facilities as well,” he said.
For many other Americans, however, the wait for a vaccine will be longer.
Walgreens is not yet sure when it will have vaccines at its drugstores to give to the general public, Gates said. He said it’s working with state officials to hear which people will get priority, such as essential workers and those who are immunocompromised, and identify those people during distribution.
And he knows from personal experience that some Americans are eager to claim their spot in the line. “Even my mom knows what number she is in the state of Iowa right now,” he said.