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Drug chains prepare for a busy flu season

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NEW YORK — Chain drug retailers are working to stay ahead of the game this flu season amid rising public concern about the need to get immunized, which is being driven by fears about the spread of the H1N1, or swine flu, virus.

Facing the unprecedented challenge of meeting demand for both seasonal flu shots and the upcoming swine flu vaccine, pharmacy operators have taken action earlier than usual.

Over the last few weeks a number of retailers announced plans to begin administering flu shots in stores and through clinics, ranging from national drug chains CVS Caremark Corp., Walgreen Co. and Rite Aid Corp. to such regional chains as Kerr Drug and Bartell Drug and food/drug combo store operators, including Kroger Co., Safeway Inc. and Supervalu Inc.

“Our pharmacists are not just giving seasonal flu shots; they are playing a crucial role in minimizing a pandemic,” notes Joe Heidrick, director of operations at Kerr Drug’s KDI Health Solutions unit.

Kerr is training additional pharmacists to administer flu vaccines, which will enable the chain to assign 115 immunizing pharmacists to its stores throughout North Carolina. And starting in mid to late October, Kerr’s certified immunizing pharmacists will administer seasonal flu shots in tandem with the H1N1 vaccine, the chain says, adding that it expects to have 80,000 doses of the H1N1 vaccine available.

Many pharmacy chains have been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the distribution of the H1N1 vaccine, slated to hit stores around mid-October at the earliest.

CDC officials have stressed that seasonal flu shots won’t guard against the H1N1 virus and another shot will be required. Drug chains are conveying that message to customers.

“Pharmacists and health care professionals will actively seek out opportunities to educate patients about the differences between H1N1 and seasonal flu so they can take the best steps to protect themselves,” comments Allan Khoury, chief medical officer of Walgreens’ Take Care Health Systems retail clinic subsidiary.

Similarly, Rite Aid is informing customers that pharmacists are available for in-store counseling on both the seasonal flu and H1N1 viruses. The chain, too, is working with suppliers to ensure all stores are adequately supplied with hand sanitizers, soaps, wipes, sprays, masks, thermometers and other household antibacterial products.

Though health officials have recommended that nearly half of the United States population get the swine flue vaccine, only a limited amount may be available initially.

One published report indicates that just 45 million doses of the vaccine will be ready in mid-October, well short of the originally projected amount of 120 million. Yet that may be due more to distribution delays, and the government should still be able to meet its plan to order 195 million doses by December, according to the report.

Until then, chains are following the CDC’s recommendation that consumers get seasonal flu shots and stock up on flu-related supplies. They also are highlighting affordability, with shots costing around $25. A Walgreens study finds that 50% of consumers plan to get a flu shot this year, up from 43% last year.

Besides launching extensive flu vaccine programs for their pharmacies and in-store clinics, CVS and Walgreens are offering a limited amount of free seasonal flu vaccines, distributed in the form of vouchers, to those lacking health insurance.

Bartell, meanwhile, has begun a flu shot program for area businesses as well as its stores. The Seattle-based chain will offer companies on-site flu shot clinics in which its trained pharmacists come to the workplace.

And Supervalu Pharmacies, the supermarket retailer’s pharmacy arm, has trained an additional 40% of its pharmacists to administer seasonal flu shots in-store. The company says the move is designed to accommodate more walk-in customers without appointments.


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