These examples aside, pharmacists can still play a vital role in getting vaccines to the more than 200 million Americans who need them if the nation is to achieve “herd immunity.” They’re poised to help in this Covid-19 pandemic since President Joe Biden announced that he plans to make vaccines available at pharmacies across the nation.
The public needs to advocate for this to happen as quickly as possible.
As states struggle to roll out vaccination programs, policymakers should remember that pharmacists are already primed to help immunize the community — especially those with lesser access to health services — when more vaccines become available to the public.
One reason is that more than 90% of Americans already live within five miles of a pharmacy, and thousands of pharmacies already have drive-through capabilities. Such physical infrastructures could easily facilitate mass drive-through immunization campaigns, and research suggests that drive-through facilities outperform other mass vaccination facilities. In addition, pharmacies already have the infrastructures for administering and documenting vaccines like flu shots in most states. Studies even show that pharmacists increase immunization rates in communities nearly three-fold and reduce the time to achieve herd immunity by seven weeks.
Another key reason is that nearly all currently practicing pharmacists have already been trained to administer vaccines as part of their curriculum at pharmacy schools. Many patients have already accepted pharmacists as one of their primary immunizers, with a review of 36 studies finding that community vaccine administration rates increased when pharmacists were specifically involved in the immunization process. They also enjoy a similar level of public trust to dentists and physicians.
Of course, pharmacy — like many professions — has its own share of bad apples and bad practices. But these issues can be addressed.
Stephen Brandenburg, for example, is the Wisconsin pharmacist whose license was suspended after he tampered with Covid-19 vaccine doses because he believed the false notion that it could alter a person’s DNA (To be perfectly clear, it does not!) Moving forward to prevent such reckless behavior, many organizations will likely need to reassess who manages the safe storage of their Covid-19 vaccine shipments and consider active surveillance of the vaccines’ containers — the same way we do for controlled medications in pharmacies.
Some of the bureaucracy that has slowed certification and rollouts can also be streamlined. Hopefully, the state boards and the big chain pharmacies can consider removing unnecessary barriers to allow their pharmacists to be literally on stand-by to start vaccinating the community within hours of the vaccines becoming physically available.
Luckily some of the states with the most successful vaccination rates have recognized the importance of the role that community pharmacies and pharmacists can play.
In West Virginia, for example, the state partnered with more than 250 local pharmacies to help deliver all of its allocated vaccine doses to all of their nursing home residents. The result: West Virginia already finished vaccinating virtually all of its nursing home patients in December, and the state has already begun vaccinating other elderly patients and even school teachers.
History shows us that pharmacists have long been instrumental in providing essential medical treatments to their communities. During the plague waves of the 16th Century, authorities in Sardinia relied on them to treat “the poorest” with remedies such as the Armenian bole, a red clay used as a treatment against plague and all types of poisons. (The pharmacists had to keep lists to distinguish between “the richer and the poorer” so that the city could pay for “the paupers.”)
Some 500 years later, pharmacists were still playing key roles in assisting, for example, health systems combat the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 by doing tasks ranging from helping to develop hospital drug treatment guidelines to securing antiviral treatments via direct agreements with drug manufacturers.
I truly hope that the public and health officials see these successes as a literal “proof of concept” and that placing pharmacists in the vaccine frontline can give us the best shot to help end this pandemic as soon as possible.