Independent community pharmacies — including long-term care pharmacies — now are official partners in the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution effort, the Department of Health and Human Services has announced.

Federal agencies have finalized agreements to make future COVID-19 vaccines available to community pharmacies through networks representing independent pharmacies and regional chains, HHS said on Thursday. 

The announcement arrives about a month after U.S. officials unveiled a Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program. Although that opt-in vaccine delivery program included an option to use one’s existing pharmacy, it highlighted retail giants Walgreens (PharMerica) and CVS Health (Omnicare) as go-to choices for at least the first phase of distribution.

Collaborations with retail giants allow the federal vaccine program to cover approximately 60% of pharmacies throughout the 50 states and territories, according to HHS. That leaves some gaps to be filled. Among the more than 15,000 U.S. skilled nursing facilities, well over 11,000 are served by pharmacies other than Omnicare and PharMerica, according to the National Community Pharmacists Association. 

The new partnerships — representing thousands of independent pharmacies and regional chains — will help federal and state health officials to further increase vaccine access, particularly in traditionally underserved areas, HHS said. 

“Community pharmacies outnumber any of the largest chains, and they very often serve populations for whom there are no other accessible healthcare providers,” said B. Douglas Hoey, CEO, NCPA. The new program is expected to continue expanding, he added.

“Based on what we are hearing from our members and industry partners, the lead federal agencies see community pharmacies as a critical part of their plan for fighting the disease,” Hoey said.

Kurt Proctor, Ph.D., RPh
Kurt Proctor, Ph.D., RPh

The announcement followed months of talks between pharmacy advocates and government agencies. Federal officials wanted to reduce logistical complexities by limiting the number of entities that they and state health departments must work with to get COVID-19 vaccines to patients, said Kurt Proctor, Ph.D., RPh, senior VP-strategic initiatives for NCPA. 

The initial model of vaccine delivery is largely based on the possibility that the first available drug will be a Pfizer candidate requiring ultra-cold storage and available in large, 975-dose shipments that must be administered quickly, Proctor said. While pharmacies of all types handle complex drug protocols every day, these requirements add an additional wrinkle to the national distribution program, he said.

The takeaway for long-term care providers is that their regular providers are not going anywhere, he added. “If [long-term care operators] are being served in the initial distribution phase by a different provider, their regular provider will be there for them on an ongoing basis. They are contracted to be part of the ongoing vaccination effort.” 

The HHS announcement includes an updated list of pharmacy program partners and representatives as of Nov. 6.