The Trump administration announced a new partnership with two major national pharmacy chains to facilitate the distribution of a future coronavirus vaccine to nursing homes on Friday.
"Today, I'm thrilled to announce that we have just finalized a partnership with CVS and Walgreens," President Trump told a group in Fort Myers, Fla., at an event centered on seniors. He said the plan was for the pharmacies to "deliver the vaccine directly to nursing homes at no cost to our seniors."
The Pharmacy Partnership for Long Term Care Program is part of the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed effort. No coronavirus vaccines have yet been authorized by the government, though several vaccine candidates are in the final stages of clinical trials.
"Early in the COVID-19 vaccination program, there may be a limited supply of vaccine and our planning efforts need to focus on those at highest risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19," Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters on a press call.
That includes people older than 65, who are much more likely to get severely ill and die from the coronavirus than other age groups. The details of which would be the first groups to get a vaccine once one is authorized is still in flux, but seniors would likely be among the first to be eligible.
The pharmacy program "provides end-to-end management of the COVID-19 vaccination process," Butler explained. That includes scheduling on site clinic dates with each facility, ordering supplies like syringes, and ensuring cold-chain management of the vaccine. Once the vaccine is on site, pharmacy staff will administer it to residents and staff and report it to the required public health department.
The program will be free for facilities, but optional. "This is voluntary. They have to opt-in," Paul Mango, deputy chief of staff for policy at the Department of Health and Human Services told reporters. "This will be something that will be available to every nursing home and senior living facility in the country."
"This is really significant," Claire Hannan, Executive Director of the Association of Immunization Managers wrote to NPR. "We've never really had coordinated partnership between pharmacies and public health across all states."
Friday was the deadline for states to deliver a vaccine distribution plan to CDC, which will be evaluating the plans and providing feedback over the next two weeks, according to federal health officials.
One of the leading vaccine candidates, made by Pfizer, requires ultra-cold storage, which "could pose a major challenge to getting nursing home and long term care residents vaccinated," explains Hannan, "so the value of this partnership can't be understated."
That aspect of the program stood out to Stacie Dusetzina, professor of health policy at Vanderbilt as well.
"Cold storage and the cold chain management has been a huge sticking point — how do you get [vaccine] to everyone who needs it and maintain these super cold temperatures?" she says. If CVS and Walgreens are going to be managing that challenge, she says, "that seems like a really big, positive thing."
A federal government partnership early in the pandemic with retail pharmacies to provide COVID-19 testing ended up yielding much less testing than promised.