Pharmacies Add Freezers, Train Staff to Handle Covid-19 Vaccination Drive

Retailers are preparing to administer coronavirus shots, but many guidelines remain uncertain

Neighborhood grocery stores are aiming to become major providers of Covid-19 vaccinations.

Supermarkets are rushing to secure freezers, thermometers and other medical gear for administering shots. They are also training staff and establishing online services for scheduling appointments. With a vaccine approval potentially weeks away, it isn’t yet known how federal and state authorities will distribute shots to the public, and grocers say they are unsure how many customers will seek immunization when it becomes available.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has signed on dozens of grocery and pharmacy chains to provide Covid-19 vaccines once the inoculations are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. 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.

Grocers have emerged as providers of Covid-19 testing for employees and consumers during the pandemic. Many supermarkets have offered customers flu shots for years, but vaccine distribution will require more coordination with state and federal agencies. In addition to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nationwide distribution, states will receive their own allocation of doses. Many of these details are still being ironed out.

United Airlines Holdings Inc. on Friday began operating charter flights to position doses of Pfizer Inc.’s Covid-19 vaccine for quick distribution if that shot is approved by regulators.

K-VA-T Food Stores Inc., one of the grocers working with the government, began preparing for distribution about three months ago when pharmaceutical companies said work on Covid-19 vaccines was showing promising results. The company, which operates as Food City and runs more than 100 pharmacies in the Southern U.S., has purchased 30 medical-grade freezers for $500 each to store vaccines, said Mickey Blazer, executive vice president of pharmacy and fuel operations at the grocer. The supermarket chain also bought devices that monitor freezer temperatures, as well as dozens of containers that can store used syringes.

“We are communicating with states virtually on a daily basis,” Mr. Blazer said.

Food City and other pharmacies said they will receive doses directly from the CDC and will provide them at no cost for customers. The shots will be paid for with tax dollars, and pharmacies and grocers can charge fees for administering vaccines to private or public insurers, according to the CDC. The federal government is planning to pay for inoculations for uninsured people.

The first phase of vaccine distribution will likely focus on health-care professionals, essential workers and people with medical conditions that put them at special risk. Most grocery pharmacies are expected to step in after those shots are given, to administer vaccines to a wider group. Next month, a federal panel expects to decide which Americans should get priority for shots.

Grocers say they are well-positioned to provide Covid-19 vaccines because a large share of the population lives near one of their stores and their pharmacies regularly offer shots for flu, shingles and other illnesses. For supermarkets, pharmacy operations have historically been a way to bring in more shoppers. Many already have freezers and other tools in stores, as well as pharmacists trained to perform immunizations.

Albertsons, which owns Jewel-Osco and Vons, said it is coordinating with government agencies across the country and building cold-storage capacity for vaccines that need to be kept at low temperatures.

Though the CDC sees fewer cases of flu this year so far, more consumers have opted to get a flu shot, industry executives said. That high demand is helping food retailers better prepare for various scenarios with Covid-19 vaccines. Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize NV, which owns Stop & Shop and Giant chains, says it is ready to set up socially distanced vaccination stations in less-trafficked areas of its grocery stores, or remove products and displays to create more space.

“We have long aisles and lots of space that give us the ability to space people out,” said John McGrath, vice president of pharmacy services at Retail Business Services LLC, the services business of Ahold Delhaize.

To expedite the immunization process, the company is also creating online tools for scheduling and prescreening. Ahold Delhaize has considered using parking lots to provide vaccines outside, but the cold weather could make that difficult depending on when shots become widely available, he said.

Ahold Delhaize and other supermarkets say they are looking to hire more employees, particularly pharmacist technicians who were cleared in October by HHS to administer Covid-19 vaccines authorized or licensed by the FDA. Pharmacist interns under the supervision of pharmacists can also give out Covid-19 vaccines.

Other retailers are training existing staff. SpartanNash Co. is training some pharmacy technicians but doesn’t know how many it should instruct since it hasn’t yet learned when and how many vaccines it might receive, said Eddie Garcia, director of pharmacy at the company. “Right now, it’s a wait-and-see game,” he said.

Many retailers are also unsure how many consumers will opt to get vaccines once available. Some people might have reservations about getting the immunization right away partly because they believe the side effects are unknown, said Cindy Fong, director of pharmacy at Raley’s Inc., a chain of roughly 130 stores in California and Nevada. Internally, roughly half of her staff said they would get the vaccine after it is approved.

State and local health officials said they are meeting several times weekly with various groups as they focus on getting ready for the first phase of vaccinations. In Kent County, Mich., officials have started discussions with pharmacies to establish a working relationship ahead of the second phase, said Mary Wisinski, an immunization-program supervisor with the county.

The city of Chicago is working with pharmacies to see how they can cooperate beyond the distribution program at the federal level, said Candice Robinson, medical director for the Chicago Department of Public Health.

“Pharmacies will be very important in vaccination as the vaccine supply increases,” she said.

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