In the closing weeks of 2020, we learned that the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines will involve a mass retail mobilization. As gifting holidays shifted into high gear after Thanksgiving, The Wall Street Journal reported that “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has signed on dozens of grocery and pharmacy chains to provide COVID-19 vaccines … [and among] the retailers are Kroger Co., Albertsons Cos. and CVS Health Corp. These businesses are part of ‘Operation Warp Speed,’ which also includes drugmakers, medical distributors and federal agencies.”
At question now: With how much “warp speed” can this all move from the logistical phase to the field at scale? News that CVS Health has already started vaccinating people in long-term care facilities before moving to public inoculations inside CVS locations coast-to-coast is another concrete example of how retailers will be drafted into the healthcare business in 2021.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) announced its conscription of stores in a November statement in which HHS Secretary Alex Azar said, “We are leveraging the existing private sector infrastructure to get safe and effective vaccines supported by Operation Warp Speed into communities and into arms as quickly as possible with no out-of-pocket costs.”
Azar added that “the vast majority of Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy, and our new agreement with pharmacy partners across America is a critical step toward making sure all Americans have access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines when they are available.”
Different Merchants, Different Approaches
Fast-forward about one month, and we find these plans being actualized, albeit slowly.
In a Jan. 6 statement, CVS said that “COVID-19 vaccines will eventually be available at all CVS Pharmacy locations throughout the country subject to product availability and prioritization of populations, which will be determined by states. No vaccines are currently available at CVS Pharmacy locations, but the company is in discussions with several states to make a limited number of doses available in the coming weeks in advance of the broader rollout.”
Noting that it “has the capacity to administer 20-25 million shots per month,” CVS Health added that it “is now administering COVID-19 vaccines in skilled nursing facilities in 49 states.”
In a somewhat ironic twist, grocers and big-box retailers appear to be pulling slightly ahead of pharmacies in the race to vaccinate. In a Dec. 23 blog, Walmart Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tom Van Gilder wrote, “We’re administering the recently approved Moderna vaccine to healthcare workers at select Walmart stores and Sam’s Clubs in the state of New Mexico. The New Mexico Department of Health carefully chose store locations to help ensure that the vaccine is safely administered in rural areas that need help supporting vaccine distribution to healthcare workers.”
Fox Business reported in December that Walgreens also has its program up and running, beginning with frontline workers in medical facilities. In a December statement, President John Standley said, “Walgreens is very proud to be a part of this historic milestone to begin administering Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to our most vulnerable populations. With more than a decade of experience administering various vaccines, we have the deep expertise to support this unprecedented effort to allow our nation to emerge from this pandemic.”
And who’s going to administer all of those injections at all of those brick-and-mortar locations?
Walgreens said it has “approximately 25,000 open positions to fill immediately,” while Fox Business reported that “CVS is looking to hire tens of thousands of healthcare workers in order to be ready for the surge in patients seeking a vaccination.” An email from the company alerted customers that CVS is “urgently hiring thousands of qualified pharmacists, nurses and pharmacy technicians,” and encouraged customers to forward the email to any “qualified applicants.”
Operation Warp Speed Encountering Drag
In the announcement, CVS said it will begin posting national and state-level vaccination figures weekly, as more members of the general public begin receiving doses within weeks. The initial round of vaccinations undertaken by CVS focuses on vulnerable populations, as do others.
“Our work with long-term care facilities isn’t a mass vaccination effort – quite the opposite. We’re dealing with a vulnerable population that requires onsite and, in some cases, in-room visits at facilities with fewer than 100 residents on average. Despite these challenges, we remain on schedule, and the number of vaccines we administer will continue to rise as more facilities are activated by the states,” said CVS Health President and CEO Larry Merlo.
Whether actual inoculations will move at warp speed remains to be seen.
PYMNTS reported on Dec. 30 that “[U.S. president-elect Joe Biden] … outlined his plans to administer 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office, a plan that he said will require funds from Congress and deeper federal involvement with state distributions. Biden has also announced his intention to use the Defense Production Act to get companies to ramp up production of the materials needed for the vaccines and protective equipment for healthcare workers. And though all of that will speed up the pace, according to the president-elect, it will still be a lengthy and time-consuming process.”