NEW YORK — With a flicker of light at the end of what has been a very dark and long tunnel, the country can begin returning to normalcy in a few months so long as we keep swinging at and hitting the right targets, according to chief COVID adviser to the White House Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Along with keeping up social distancing and wearing masks, the vaccines being rolled out now to the American public could be the final knockout blow everyone has been desperately awaiting. Despite a sluggish start, Fauci said the pace of distributing the vaccines will pick up rapidly in the coming months, and central to that quickening is President Joe Biden’s Federal Retail Pharmacy Program.
The plan, unveiled earlier this month, distributes doses directly to retail pharmacies across the country and is aimed at meeting the president’s goal of administering 100 million shots in 100 days and expanding access the vaccines to more Americans as the rollout progresses.
Retail pharmacies have argued from the jump that they could play a critical role in getting the needed shots in the arms of Americans based on the knowledge and experience of local pharmacists in administering flu shots and other common vaccines as well as the level of trust pharmacies have established in their communities.
For its part, CVS has already announced it will begin offering COVID vaccines to those eligible at some pharmacies in 11 states — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York (not New York City), Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Walgreens also announced plans to start vaccinating across 15 states this month as part of the president’s strategy. “Walgreens was one of the first pharmacies to begin administering COVID-19 vaccinations in December to long-term-care facility staff and residents, and we look forward to leveraging our experience to support the federal government and CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] in expanding access to these vaccines,” said John Standley, president of Walgreens. “Our pharmacy teams have already provided nearly 2 million COVID-19 vaccinations and stand ready with their expertise to help educate and vaccinate additional Americans, including those in rural and underserved communities.”
The CDC has made sure, according to White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients, that retail pharmacies are included in the president’s plan to vaccinate Americans, especially his pledge to do so equitably because of the location of pharmacies in rural and typically underserved areas.
So far, the president’s plan and his overall strategy for attacking the pandemic has been embraced by those on the front lines and within the pharmacy industry.
National Association of Chain Drug Stores president and chief executive officer Steve Anderson applauded the plan to enlist pharmacies in the fight, saying the president’s action was “another crucial step forward” to helping Americans get back to their lives pre-pandemic and vowed “trusted local pharmacies are ready to turn vaccine doses into vaccination appointments.”
The nation’s network of community pharmacies, according to Anderson, can readily meet the goal of giving 100 million vaccinations in one month, assuming such supply is available. With 90% of Americans living within five miles of a pharmacy, the nation’s 40,000 regional and national pharmacy locations are vital for scaling COVID vaccinations, in Anderson’s view.
“We are so pleased to see the Biden administration fulfill their pledge to commencing this program. We look forward to deploying the assets and expertise of pharmacies across America to protect the health and livelihoods of individuals, families, communities and the nation,” Anderson said. “We are deeply honored to be part of the Biden National Strategy for COVID Recovery.”
The National Community Pharmacists Association also welcomed the plan, with CEO B. Douglas Hoey stating: “When independent pharmacies have access to the vaccine, they are able to quickly get the coronavirus shots in patients’ arms. We are encouraged by these efforts to accelerate vaccine distribution, and strongly encourage the administration and state policy makers to fully include small business pharmacies in their plans.”
Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of the Food Industry Association (FMI), commended the president for his plan, noting that grocery stores, many of which have pharmacies, serve as health and well-being destinations, providing consumers the opportunity to receive vaccinations when available at the same location where they already purchase food and other essentials. “This not only makes vaccine access more convenient, but it also makes it safer and reduces the risk of exposure in the midst of a pandemic,” Sarasin said, adding that many FMI pharmacy members have large footprints and parking lots that allow social distancing, while additional or extended store hours provide times for seniors and immunocompromised patients to receive vaccinations.”
Adding to the optimism that the end of the pandemic might be in sight was recent news from Johnson & Johnson that it had developed a vaccine requiring only one shot as opposed to the two doses required by the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines already being administered. According to Fauci, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could soon receive emergency use authorization from the FDA.
Though its efficacy rate in clinical trials was lower than the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines — 72% among trial volunteers in the U.S., 66% in Latin America and 57% in South Africa, where a new, more infectious variant has become dominant — the vaccine did show an 85% effective rate against preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death.
Fauci, who described the Johnson & Johnson results as “really encouraging,” also noted that directly comparing the Johnson & Johnson results with those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna was not quite apples to apples because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested after the emergence of more transmissible mutations of the virus whereas the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were tested prior to the variants.