With one more week left to register for the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution program, long-term care facility operators who opt in must choose a pharmacy partner. Community and LTC pharmacy advocates are urging operators to check with their existing pharmacy provider — particularly independents — about their readiness to participate in this program.

“[Long-term care residents] already know and trust their pharmacist, and continuing this relationship through COVID-19 immunization will be a natural expansion of the healthcare services their pharmacist is already providing,” Douglas Hoey, RPh, MBA, and CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association, told McKnight’s

Advocates encouraged members of Operation Warp Speed, the federal vaccine acceleration program, to include community and LTC pharmacists in its new Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, Hoey said. Although federal health officials are highlighting their agreement with CVS Health and Walgreens to provide vaccination services in nursing home, assisted living and independent living settings, it is important for these operators to know that they may be able to work with their current provider, he said.

An NCPA survey in August found that 86% of community pharmacists were planning to offer COVID-19 vaccines when they became available. Another 70% reported that they already administer other vaccines to patients at locations beyond their stores, including LTC facilities.

“Independent pharmacists are highly mobile,” Hoey said.

It is important for these pharmacies to understand what they need to be capable of regarding storage, handling, administering and data reporting for a new COVID-19 vaccine, said Chad Worz, PharmD, executive director and CEO of the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists. “But LTC pharmacies handle very dangerous drugs every day that go into their nursing facilities, so this is not new for them,” he said.

The nature of a long-term care setting, whether nursing home or assisted living, underscores the importance of resident and staff familiarity with established healthcare providers, the NCPA and ASCP said. The value of professional experience in these facilities shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to safe vaccine administration, Worz added.

“You’re walking into an environment where an individual might be bedridden, they may have been isolated from the people in their facility as well as their loved ones for the last six months, there might be cognitive decline and dementia,” he said. “That takes a specialized approach, and there’s a comfort level there.” 

Vaccine storage and handling

CVS Health and Walgreens were chosen by Operation Warp Speed to take part in the vaccine delivery program in part due to their ability to ensure cold storage of the vaccine until it is ready to be administered, and to meet documentation and reporting requirements, according to the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living. 

“Many LTC pharmacies do not have this capacity yet, but it is anticipated that they will build the capacity for later phases of vaccine distribution and administration,” the organizations added.

Hoey and Worz insist that many of their members are fully capable of handling the complexities of safe administration and delivery — and have been doing so all along.

“I think there’s a bit of a bias that a large, corporate retail pharmacy somehow is more capable than a standalone, independent care pharmacy, but I would say that’s an uninformed perspective,” Worz said.

At this time, the possibility also remains that group purchasing organizations representing independent LTC pharmacies could negotiate an agreement with federal agencies to take part in the phase one vaccination plan alongside these chain retailers, Worz added.

“Ultimately, everybody wants to be sure that if there is a safe and effective vaccine, and that we’re able to get it to people that are most vulnerable and the most at risk,” Worz said. “It’s well known that nursing homes have borne a large burden of COVID-19, and the quicker that we can protect them, the better.”