Entrenched assumptions about the role of community pharmacy are being uprooted by the COVID-19 crisis, and leaders of five of the nation’s largest retailers accelerated the process last month during a meeting with President Trump and the Coronavirus Task Force at the White House. The executives were there to lend support to the public-private partnership intended to substantially increase COVID-19 testing, something health care experts say is a prerequisite for safely reopening the country.
The retailers were there to talk about current testing programs and plans to ramp up efforts by leveraging the unique position that community pharmacies occupy in the health care continuum. During brief remarks in the Rose Garden following the meeting, the leaders of CVS Health, Kroger Co., Rite Aid Corp., Walgreens and Walmart touched on many of the capabilities that give the profession such latent force.
“As a pharmacist, I just want to say one quick thing: I’m really proud to be part of this profession,” said Richard Ashworth, president of Walgreens and current chairman of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. ”And not just Walgreens pharmacists and pharmacy employees, but all of them — across grocery, mass, independents. You’re really doing what you should be doing and what you went to school for — to help patients, counseling them on their medicines and helping them understand the problems that we’re facing.
“Pharmacy is right here in it with everyone, together in the community, and we look forward to being part of the testing like we are now; serology, whatever that might look like in the future; and eventually treatment when the vaccine does come.”
After noting that Rite Aid was operating 40% of the then-current test sites in 25 locations across eight states, Heyward Donigan, the company’s chief executive officer, talked about what she saw when visiting one of those facilities. “I had the opportunity, as I was driving up, to stop at our Richmond location and see the testing in action and thank the associates — whether it be security or pharmacy or front end, everybody who’s helping with this great effort — and all of the customers that appreciate this so much,” Donigan said. “It was really amazing to see.”
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon highlighted the industry’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to unforeseen health care needs. Recalling a discussion with White House officials, he said, “The president and vice president were speaking on the phone about surgical gowns, and the president asked if we could put in an order for millions of surgical gowns.
“We don’t normally buy those, so I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to do that. But I’d like to thank our apparel team and McKesson, in particular, for partnering with us. We’ve been able to, in the month of April, secure an additional 2.5 million surgical gowns. And by the end of May, we’ll have an additional 6 million available to help.”
The contributions that pharmacies and others in the private sector are making toward getting American back to work were stressed by Rodney McMullen, chairman and CEO of Kroger.
“I am so proud of our nearly half a million associates that are doing everything, every day, to keep customers safe and our associates safe.
One of the things that we were able to do is provide the basic practices that we’re doing. We call it a blueprint. And it’s the things that all of us can learn from on how to get America back working.”
The pharmacy sector’s ability to help the country regain its equilibrium and return to a new normal was reiterated by CVS Health president and CEO Larry Merlo, who also talked about the need to target the health care disparities that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore.
“We also recognize the fact that the virus is disproportionately affecting our minority communities,” he said. “So we’re working in partnership with organizations like the National Medical Association to bring testing and care into the traditionally underserved communities.
“We’re also beginning to implement mobile capabilities with which to do that. And as businesses are restarting their workforce, we’ll also be looking to assist them as they begin to come back to a normal operation.”
Speaking just 45 days after the White House first sought community pharmacy’s assistance with coronavirus testing, the executives doubled down on their commitment to help the country overcome the gravest public health crisis it has faced since the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago, and, at the same time, provided patients, policy makers and payers with a primer on what the profession is equipped to do to support the health of the American people.