CVS will begin administering the COVID-19 vaccine to Virginians next week at three dozen of its stores across the state as part of a national and state push to use local pharmacies to reach elderly people and others who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus disease.
The initial rollout will include CVS stores in Richmond, Mechanicsville and Midlothian that the national pharmacy chain said it will identify when it starts to accept appointments on Tuesday for vaccinations that will begin on Thursday.
Gov. Ralph Northam said the company is working as the state’s primary partner in the national pharmacy partnership program touted by President Joe Biden this week with 21 major retail companies and pharmacy networks involved. The participating CVS stores will receive about 26,000 doses of vaccine to administer in addition to those the state already is receiving.
Northam said the state, working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chose CVS as its primary partner because “it has the most locations of any pharmacy in Virginia.”
Northam said the VDH also is working with other companies — including Walmart, Walgreens and Kroger — and a network of independent pharmacies to distribute the vaccine as it becomes available.
However, some independent pharmacies fear they will be left out of the push even though they have direct relationships with many of the people the state is trying hardest to reach in communities not served by CVS.
“There are large gaps in the service area,” said Christina Barrille, executive director of the Virginia Pharmacists Association, which represents about 1,500 members of varying sizes.
In areas not served by CVS, Barrille asked, “How are these patients going to be seen?
For example, Goochland Pharmacy, located at Goochland Courthouse, has been receiving 30 to 40 calls a day from its regular customers, but owner Pete Taylor said the health department hasn’t told him when his store will receive vaccine to administer in an area that does not include CVS stores.
“People want to know when they can get it,” Taylor said. “All we can do is refer them to the health department.”
VDH spokeswoman Cheryle Rodriguez said CVS’ locations give it “the greatest ability to reach the largest number of persons, including those 65 years and older and those with the greatest risk for severe illness or death due to COVID-19.”
Initially, CVS will begin administering the vaccine at 36 stores. Many of those are in highly populated areas in the state’s urban crescent from Northern Virginia through Richmond to Hampton Roads. The push also will include stores in less populated localities such as Martinsville, Danville and Chatham in Southside, and Dublin and Rocky Mount in Southwest Virginia.
CVS said it would add locations and appointments as more vaccine becomes available.
The company has been administering the vaccine since late December to residents and employees of long-term care facilities and communities in Virginia under a national partnership with Walgreens and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
However, independent community pharmacies are eager to play a larger role because of their ability to reach many vulnerable residents in their homes, rather than through vaccination clinics conducted by local health departments.
“They have a different relationship with their patient population,” said Barrille, with the pharmacists association.
Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, whose district stretches from the Richmond suburbs through the rural Piedmont to Culpeper County, urged Biden’s acting health secretary last week to include small-community pharmacists in the rollout.
“Community pharmacists have the flexibility to cut through red tape and reduce paperwork burdens for patients and their guardians in many cases,” Spanberger and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said in a letter to acting HHS Secretary Norris Cochran.
Buford Road Pharmacy, an independent pharmacy in the Bon Air neighborhood of Chesterfield County, has vaccinated about 800 people with their first dose of the Moderna vaccine and about 100 with a second dose.
But the store doesn’t expect additional supplies for as long as eight weeks, based on local health department guidance.
“We’re ready to go,” Dr. Joseph Jadallah, the pharmacist at Buford Road, said on Friday. “The only thing stopping us is we don’t have vaccine.”
The VDH said it is distributing supplies of vaccine “equitably and efficiently,” with each local district receiving its share based on population to distribute based on eligibility guidelines.
Dr. Alexander Samuel, director of the Chesterfield Health District, which includes Colonial Heights and Powhatan County, said its supply of vaccine is “extremely limited,” so it will focus primarily on people 75 and older, those who are 65 and older with underlying medical conditions, and the top three tiers of front-line workers.
The local health district said it is administering the vaccine initially through clinics that require preregistration and appointments as “the best ways to get the most vaccines into the arms” of residents.