The COVID-19 vaccination rollout enabled retail pharmacies to take a closer look at their immunization programs. To improve operations, many sought new certifications, updated technology and purchased equipment. Among the results were improved workflow, better customer service and, importantly, increased traffic and revenues. As the pandemic wanes and demand for vaccines decreases, retailers are leveraging what they learned to prepare for the future, which could present anything from another pandemic to a routine flu season.
Major retailers acknowledge that COVID-19 vaccines and testing drove traffic and sales. In March, Walgreens Boots Alliance reported that in the second quarter of fiscal 2022, U.S. retail comparable sales were up 14.7% compared with the year-ago period, led by COVID vaccinations and testing. The chain reported that it had administered 62.8 million vaccines to date. CVS announced that in fiscal 2021 it administered 59 million vaccines, and that fourth quarter revenues (ending Dec. 31, 2021) increased 10.1% compared with the prior year. In April, Kroger reported strong fiscal year 2021 sales, and that it had administered 11 million vaccines to date.
Now that pharmacies have moved beyond just trying to keep up with demand for COVID-19 vaccines, they are realizing that there are opportunities to help boost their immunization programs to help drive traffic and sales.
Consumers have been increasingly seeking vaccines from retail pharmacies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2020-2021 Flu Season Summary, 53.8% of people reported getting a flu vaccination at a store, which was significantly higher than the 34.9% for the 2019-2020 season. As retailers prepared to offer COVID-19 vaccines through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, many already had vaccination programs in place because they offered flu shots. One challenge was the increased volume.
“In a pandemic, when you go from several thousand vaccines to tens of thousands, you have to scale up,” said Sandra Canally, founder and CEO of The Compliance Team, which provides a variety of accreditation services. “That takes a lot of operational excellence to do that.”
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The Philadelphia-based organization added immunization certification, including COVID-19, to its offerings during the pandemic. “We created the certification program for those providers that really wanted to make sure their processes were where they needed to be,” Canally said. “It’s all about gaining the trust of the community.”
The program covers, among other topics, proper patient intake, safe vaccine storage and handling, and awareness of adverse events such as allergic reactions. “It’s not just ‘Did you have any adverse events and how is it documented?’” Canally said. “Was the handling of it the same across the board? Did Mary the pharmacist handle this the same as Joe the pharmacist?” She recommended having quality improvement meetings every quarter to discuss incidents and areas of improvement.
Many retailers looked at their flu vaccination program as a blueprint for their COVID-19 vaccine programs, said Dave Ross, vice president of North America commercial operations at Seqirus. “This includes their expertise in how to engage and educate their customers about the importance of immunization, how to manage vaccine inventories to ensure doses are where they are needed, and how to conduct effective and convenient mass-immunization clinics,” he said.