“Will the COVID-19 vaccine be mandatory?” That’s the No. 1 question senior living operator Trilogy Health Services says its residents and families are asking. 

Trilogy is not alone. With a vaccine likely on its way to facilities within weeks or less, pharmacy providers are urging long-term care operators to address resident and staff questions now to help ensure a smooth vaccination process. 

“The ‘best client’ will be the best communicator,” said T.J. Griffin, RPh, chief pharmacy officer at PharMerica, when asked how long-term care facilities should prepare for onsite vaccinations. “It’s important to implement a communication solution that is simple and easy for everyone to understand and use,” he said.

Omnicare had a similar message for facility operators. “The biggest challenge is going to be making sure that [residents and staff] understand that this is a vaccination that the Food and Drug Administration has said is safe and efficacious,” Jim Love, president of LTC pharmacy specialist Omnicare, told the McKnight’s Clinical Daily

‘How will this work?’

CVS Health and Walgreens will administer the very first, limited stockpile of COVID-19 vaccine doses nationwide. Independent community pharmacies will be involved in phase 2 of the rollout, when more doses become available, industry stakeholders told McKnight’s

The two retail giants and their LTC pharmacy cohorts (Omnicare and PharMerica, respectively) each will serve more than 25,000 LTC partners — including existing and new clients — and are rolling out education campaigns. These include webinars, new website pages and LinkedIn Live events to address questions about the vaccine itself and the administration process.

Image of James R. Love, president, Omnicare
James R. Love, president, Omnicare

Omnicare, for example, went live with a new vaccine resource webpage last Wednesday and is actively relaying information as it schedules clinics with its facility partners, Love said. 

Clients are aware that they are first in line, he added. What they want to know is “exactly how is this going to work.”

The company’s webpage will answer questions such as how the vaccine was evaluated; whether it will need to be administered each year like influenza vaccines; how pharmacies will ensure a second dose is available and timely, and whether the CVS team will bring their own personal protective equipment and safety needles/syringes.

“The whole idea here is to begin to dispel myths, provide specifics with respect to the operation and begin to collect additional feedback,” added Omnicare’s Derek Darling, VP, strategy, marketing and internal operations. He recommended that LTC providers visit the website and begin to familiarize themselves with the processes, protocol and how the program will run. “The website will be a source of truth,” he said.

Omnicare, which plans to run its vaccination workflow like its onsite flu clinic program, is also urging its LTC facility partners to attend a detailed informational webinar it is conducting on Monday, Dec. 7. 

Address resident concerns; ‘Don’t cancel your clinic’

Image of T.J. Griffin, chief pharmacy officer, PharMerica
T.J. Griffin, chief pharmacy officer, PharMerica

PharMerica, meanwhile, said that it is assuring clients that COVID-19 vaccines are undergoing the same rigorous FDA trial requirements as any other vaccine, and that medical experts and career public health officials are vetting vaccines for safety and efficacy before they are considered for authorization.

PharMerica’s Griffin, who helped advise Operation Warp Speed, is featured on YouTube addressing client concerns about the vaccine development process, and the company will host a webinar for clients on Tuesday, Dec. 8, to discuss vaccine development, safety and distribution. Walgreens and PharMerica also will convene on Friday, Dec. 11, for a LinkedIn Live event to explain the administration process with speakers who include Walgreens’ chief medical officer. 

LTC operators will be able to further ease the process by having staff members help distribute the federal drug fact sheets that will become available when a vaccine is authorized, Griffin said. These are officially necessary for educating residents and staff so that they can give consent to receive the shots. PharMerica also recommends that facilities hold brief meetings before the onsite vaccination clinics to explain facility expectations such as social distancing.

Beyond education, another must-do for LTC operators is that they update facility contact information, in part to help ensure that the two-dose drug regimen is completed, Omnicare leaders said.

“This is a sizable operation and we will be relying upon many methods of communications back to facilities throughout the program,” Darling explained. “What we want to make sure is that we are getting the correct contact information from our facilities” — including layers of backup contacts, he said.

Providers should not cancel their clinics at the last minute, Pharmerica added. The vaccine is precious and, due to the storage requirements, cancellations could lead to wasted vaccine, Griffin said. 

CVS Health and Walgreens each plan to be onsite at LTC facilities within days of federal approval, which in the case of the Pfizer vaccine may come shortly after a federal advisory committee meeting on Thursday, Dec. 10. 

No vaccination mandate; community pharmacies weigh in

For its part, Trilogy is telling residents and staff that it will not require COVID-19 vaccinations, Leigh Ann Barney, president and CEO, told McKnight’s. “We do require the normal flu shot for employees and offer it to all residents, but we are not mandating the COVID vaccine,” she said.

Vaccine questions from residents and families have so far been minimal, Barney added. But she expects that will change once the vaccine becomes available. 

“With so much misinformation being spread on social media, we want to provide the people we serve with a source of truth, so they can make the best decision for themselves and their loved ones,” Barney said. The company has been using all of its communication channels, including internal and external messaging apps, social media pages and its website, to share what it knows about the vaccine “from timing to efficacy,” she explained.

PCA Pharmacy, Trilogy’s provider under the same ownership, has remained in contact with federal and state agencies, allowing Trilogy to give employees and families updated information, Barney added. 

PCA recommends that long-term care facilities try to remain patient throughout the process. “There may be some delay, as vaccine supply will be limited in the early portions of this rollout. Additionally, there will likely be hurdles with the retail pharmacy providers working through the complexities of long-term care,” the company told McKnight’s.

“Because of this, we have been working to communicate with our LTCF customers, as well as our state long-term care association partners, on how to best position themselves to ensure our patients get the care they need and deserve. 

“Based upon our involvement and experience with Operation Warp Speed, we have also been encouraging our facilities to stay engaged at the state and federal level of government to ensure they are receiving constant communication around the fast-paced changes during this process.”

The National Community Pharmacists Association concurs.

“Make sure in phase 1 that needs are met and there is always a backup plan,” said Ronna Hauser, PharmD, VP, policy and government affairs operations. NCPA is telling long-term care providers to keep discussions going with either current pharmacy providers or the local and the state health department, she said. This will ensure that “any potential gaps [in vaccine coverage] can be filled and can be filled quickly,” she concluded.

PCA said that it, along with many independent LTC pharmacies, has spent weeks in preparation to execute the process. “Even if we are not permitted to complete the distribution and administration for some of our facilities [in Phase 1], we are ensuring that we will be available to provide education and support in any way possible.”