There could be no doubt about the importance of this meeting.
On March 13, standing next to President Trump in the Rose Garden at the White House, were top executives from healthcare providers and major retailers, including CVS Health, Kroger, Target, Walgreens and Walmart.
The president was declaring a national emergency and sharing the administration’s plan to combat the novel coronavirus. He needed to show strength and unity from the people in the trenches and, as we all soon found out, retail, including the pharmacy, quickly became the front line in the war on COVID-19.
In addition to remaining open for the necessities that customers and patients required, the retail pharmacy industry over the past seven months also has been tasked with increasing the services offered to nclude COVID-19 testing, more immunizations and, eventually, administering a COVID-19 vaccine.
For these reasons, Drug Store News is honoring the significant contributions that the entire industry has made to responding to the pandemic and demonstrating to a watching nation just how essential it is.
“The pandemic has been called the great accelerator in almost every aspect of our economy, healthcare system and really on our personal lives and how we use technology — and that’s particularly true as it relates to pharmacy,” said Steve Anderson, president and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.
From Anderson’s perspective, there is not a better industry to help combat the coronavirus, with 91% of the U.S. population living within five miles of an NACDS member pharmacy. On a wider scale, 95% of the population lives within five miles of any pharmacy.
Executives said that the pandemic has laid bare the crucial role retail pharmacy plays in the nation’s healthcare system — particularly when it comes to the clinical services offered by retailers that operate pharmacies.
“As an industry and a profession, we’ve been lifting this boulder up this hill for many years and getting quick wins here and there where we could,” said Jocelyn Konrad, Rite Aid executive vice president and chief pharmacy officer. “This has accelerated that. We talk a lot about what our pharmacists are capable of doing, are educated to do, but this has given us the platform to show the country what the true value of a pharmacist is and how we can contribute to the whole healthcare system.”
Throughout the pandemic there have bene key developments underscoring the value of pharmacy.
“There were two really important inflection points for pharmacy in COVID, and they both related to the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act,” Anderson said, referring to two Department of Health and Human services declarations — the first allowing pharmacist testing and the more recent one allowing pharmacists to order and administer an eventual COVID-19 vaccine. “Both those items were huge game-changers for pharmacy, not only during the pandemic, but from our perspective if we can make some of these changes permanent, it will be excellent for patients moving forward.”
“As we worked to expand testing capacity to allow for more than 500,000 COVID-19 tests per month, we maintained a focus on underserved communities, with more than 70 percent of our testing sites located in areas the CDC has identified as socially vulnerable,” Gates added. “The pandemic has underscored the significant trust Walgreens pharmacies have within the communities we serve.”
For its part, CVS Health is on track to have more than 4,000 testing sites operational by mid-October across 33 states and Washington, D.C. The chain opened 400 sites on one day in September.
“Since opening our first test site in March, we’ve been able to quickly adapt to the changing landscape in order to make it easier for people in the communities we serve to access testing,” Jon Roberts, COO of CVS Health and acting CVS Pharmacy president, said when the company announced in mid-September that it would be doubling its testing footprint from 2,000 sites. “We recognize the critical role testing plays in helping to manage the spread of the virus and are incredibly proud of how our teams have responded to this need while continuing to take care of our customers,
clients and patients.”
Beyond directly testing the general population, Kroger made it a point to develop an easy to way ensure that its associates had access to tests in order to guarantee that its shoppers were healthy as well. The company work with the Food and Drug Administration to develop its own COVID-19 home collection test. “That was an easy decision for us and we had the support all the way up to our CEO to make sure that we could take care of our associates,” Shinton said.
At Walgreens, it also has positioned itself as a resource for institutions looking to reopen safely. “We’ve also launched Walgreens Test & Protect program to aid businesses and universities in their COVID-19 work plans and strategies,” Gates said. “The program provides access to COVID-19 testing, as well as clinical guidance including ongoing preventative care services such as flu shots and other CDC-recommended immunizations."
“It’s exciting to see that trust and confidence in our pharmacists across the federal and state government to give us that ability to fill in the gaps,” Rite Aid’s Konrad said. “Any time we can get our pharmacists to practice at the top of their license, that’s what we want to do.
Shinton said that though there was a lull in vaccinations offered early in the pandemic, interest in remaining health has driven more visits to the pharmacy. “Vaccines are definitely starting to pick back up and they have for a little while,” he said. “We’re seeing people really re-engaging with preventive care again.”
Beyond the pharmacy, in May, Kroger Health began offering free telenutrition services as part of its “Food as Medicine” platform. Using data from the retailer’s analytics arm, 84.51° that found more Americans cooking and baking, as well as an uptick in consumption of comfort food, packaged foods and snacking, the offering included a complimentary virtual consultation with a registered dietitian and personalized support plans for individuals and families.
“We have a strong belief at Kroger that food is medicine,” Shinton said. “Especially in times of stress and illness, good nutrition is a big part of your arsenal, and while people are homebound, having something to focus on like maintaining good nutrition is important. So, we made the decision early on to make our dietitian services free during the pandemic.”