Pharmacies are poised to take a greater role in vaccinating the wider public against COVID-19, but Maine has experienced mixed results with two national pharmacy chains that have been vaccinating residents and employees of long-term care facilities.

Walgreens and CVS pharmacies have administered only a fraction of the vaccine doses they’ve been allocated for employees and residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Maine, and state officials question whether the national chains would be able to expand their efforts here anytime soon.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced plans last week for an early launch of a federal pharmacy partnership program that would slowly activate 40,000 retail pharmacies to join the broader vaccination effort now largely being handled by hospitals.

Once activated, the pharmacies could “very easily” administer 100 million vaccine doses nationwide in 30 days with one pharmacist at each store, said Kathleen Jaeger, a pharmacist who is senior vice president of pharmacy care and patient advocacy with the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.

That’s a “conservative estimate,” Jaeger said during a media briefing Wednesday, though she didn’t explain how a pharmacist would administer vaccine and operate a pharmacy at the same time. She said some pharmacies likely would hire additional staff.

Pharmacies are widespread, experienced in holding in-store and community vaccination clinics, and have the online capacity to schedule vaccinations, she said.

Jaeger said Operation Warp Speed activated the federal pharmacy partnership Tuesday but had yet to explain how future vaccine supply would be apportioned or delivered to pharmacies. Pharmacies were to be notified Thursday if they are receiving early allocations of vaccine, she said.

Nationally. the vaccines would be distributed to and administered at no cost through 19 pharmacy chains, including CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Rite Aid, Kroger, Publix and Costco.

Vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna had distributed 29 million doses across the United States, but only 10 million had been administered as of Wednesday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pharmacies want to access the 19 million doses that are “sitting on shelves,” Jaeger said.

But Maine officials had a similar concern this week when Dr. Nirav Shah, head of the Maine CDC, ordered Walgreens to send 1,950 vaccine doses to Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, both in Lewiston.

“Walgreens was unable to tell us when those doses would be put in the arms,” Shah said Wednesday during a media briefing. Shah said no planned vaccinations were disrupted.

Maine is in its first phase of vaccination, prioritizing health care workers, long-term care residents and employees, public safety personnel and COVID-19 response workers, largely through hospitals. The next phase, expected to start in February, would include people age 70 and older, people with high-risk medical conditions and certain front-line essential workers.

Shah said CVS and Walgreens had vaccinated at least 8,645 residents and employees of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, out of 53, 511 initial doses and 62,004 overall doses that had been administered in Maine as of Wednesday. Both vaccines require booster shots within a few weeks.

Shah has said about one-third of vaccine doses that have been delivered to Maine since the rollout began Dec. 15 have been allocated to CVS and Walgreens for clinics they are contracted to hold at long-term care facilities under a partnership forged by the federal government. That would be about 45,625 of 136,875 doses.

Walgreens and CVS haven’t answered questions about what might be causing the delay.

Shah acknowledged that staffing and scheduling have been problems for the pharmacy chains, especially Walgreens.

“In particular with Walgreens, we have urged them to ensure that they have the requisite number of staff ready to go before they get on (site),” Shah said. “Our message to both CVS and Walgreens has been pretty clear. We want all gas, no brakes.”

Walgreens didn’t respond to a request for information about its vaccine effort in Maine. As of Wednesday, CVS had administered vaccine to 3,752 long-term care residents and employees in Maine, according to the national chain’s website.

“We expect to complete administration of first doses in the 8,000 skilled nursing facilities that partnered with us by Jan. 25,” said CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis. “States are activating nearly 31,000 assisted living facilities partnering with us this week, with first doses administered in all facilities within three to four weeks of start dates.”

DeAngelis said COVID-19 vaccines eventually will be available at all CVS Pharmacy locations throughout the country, subject to vaccine availability and prioritization of populations, which will be determined by states.

“The minute that program is turned on, we’ll be ready to go.” DeAngelis said. “In the meantime, some states are making vaccines available to a limited number of retailers, including pharmacies and grocers, in advance of the broader rollout.”

Vaccines in a retail setting will be offered on an appointment-only basis via cvs.com or through the CVS Pharmacy app, he said, and there will be a dedicated 800 phone number for people without online access.

Meanwhile, the Maine CDC is working with independent pharmacies and public health nurses to accelerate the vaccine rollout, Shah said. Whether pharmacy chains can take a greater role before fulfilling their commitments to long-term care facilities in Maine is questionable.

“Maine CDC welcomes any effort that would help pharmacies fulfill their commitment to vaccinate residents and staff at long-term care facilities,” said spokesman Robert Long. “Operation Warp Speed will have to provide more vaccine before anyone can roll it out.”

Dr. James Jarvis, senior physician executive at Northern Light Health, said he’d like to see pharmacies partner with hospitals to hold large-scale vaccination clinics.

“We will partner with anybody to assist in (expanding the vaccine rollout),” Jarvis said Wednesday during a news briefing. “But (staffing) was a concern for CVS and Walgreens in our state.”

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