Walgreens pharmacy leaders share COVID-19 vaccine strategy

David Salazar
Managing Editor
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Walgreens executives on Friday outlined the retailer’s plans for getting an approved COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable patients. As the country awaits emergency use authorization for Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine, Walgreens’ chief medical officer Dr. Kevin Ban, senior vice president of pharmacy and health care Rick Gates, and group vice president of pharmacy operations and services hosted a LinkedIn Live event with PharmMerica chief pharmacy officer TJ Griffin, outlining when long-term care residents can expect to begin getting vaccinated. 

Ban noted that once the vaccine is approved for emergency use, individual states will decide which populations receive the initial vaccinations, with front-line workers at the top of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list, followed by older people. 

“Our expectation, because we believe [emergency use authorization] is imminent, the states are going to push that out and administer to people on the front lines,” Ban said. “Shortly thereafter we’re going to start the long-term care vaccine program. We expect that that program will start on Monday, Dec. 21.”

PharMerica, which operates more than 30,000 long-term care facilities, said that its partnership with Walgreens for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout joins previous vaccination efforts. “We’ve worked with Walgreens, doing flu clinics at our assisted living and senior living communities,” Griffin said. 

Shah said that the company’s infrastructure is prepared for vaccine distribution and administration — from its supply chain to its more than 27,000 pharmacists. Currently, Walgreens has between 800 and 1,000 stores that are set up with freezers that get cold enough to store the Pfizer vaccine, adding that “we have freezers across all our fleet so that we can support the Moderna vaccine.”

With regard to infrastructure, Shah said many insights that informed the company’s approach to COVID-19 were gleaned during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. 

“Walgreens was part of the program in 2009 when H1N1 hit, and that was the beginning of our journey,” she said. “We learned then what infrastructure we needed to respond to a pandemic of this size, and since then we have built off of our infrastructure — mainly technology where we’ve built on the reporting and data capabilities to help support all of the reporting that is in place to go back to the CDC. In addition to that, ensuring patients receive the notification for that second dose that’s required so that they complete the series.”

She said that Walgreens also ensuring that pharmacists have access to training materials, guidelines and other resources to ensure that they are ready to support vaccination to healthcare workers and long-term care facilities. 

Overall, Shah emphasized the company’s ability to take learnings from its extensive vaccination experience, including in its stores and via more than 150,000 offsite clinics. 

“Our playbooks are set up so that when we do learn something new, we’re able to pivot on the fly and be able to ensure that our communities are protected across the country,” Shah said.