CVS program may expedite effort, but won’t expand eligibility, officials say.
Editor’s note: Since this story first ran, Virginia’s had a few issues rolling out the CVS vaccination plan. You can read more about that here.
RICHMOND – On Feb. 12, CVS will join the effort to get Virginians vaccinated against COVID-19. Thirty-six CVS locations throughout the state will receive 26,000 doses of vaccine through a partnership with the federal government. Vaccination appointments will become available on Feb. 11.
But while that’s good news, don’t expect a massive rollout immediately. According to CVS Health Senior Manager of Corporate Communications Amy Thibault, the pharmacy chain is “expecting to receive 26,000 doses a week in Virginia for at least the next few weeks.” As more supply becomes available, CVS will expand to more locations and offer additional appointments, Thibault said.
Supply Has Been a Problem
Ever since vaccination efforts began in mid-December, supply problems have plagued health departments nationwide. The federal government is responsible for distributing a central supply of vaccines throughout the country. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has been one of many state leaders to complain about a lack of transparency and efficiency during distribution.
At the moment, Virginia is only receiving about 106,000 doses of vaccine per week. Northam said during a Feb. 5 press conference that allocation increased about 23% last week compared with prior weeks. But demand is still far outpacing supply.
Since December, 1.1 million vaccine doses have been administered in Virginia. A little more than 10% of the state’s total population has received at least one dose. On some days, Virginia succeeds at meeting the governor’s stated goal of administering 50,000 doses per day. However, as of Feb. 8, the seven-day rolling average was only about 37,000 doses.
The doses distributed directly to CVS locations will be supplemental; that is, in addition to the state’s weekly allocation. However, 26,000 doses for 36 locations works out to just a few hundred doses per pharmacy, per week. So the new program may not make much of a dent in the overall demand problem. Furthermore, not every CVS in Virginia is participating.
In a press release Feb. 8, CVS Health announced that “because active stores will change regularly based on vaccine supply, CVS Health will not provide a full list of participating locations.”
Eligibility Remains the Same
The CVS vaccination clinics will be staffed entirely by CVS employees, Thibault explained. So these additional vaccination opportunities won’t strain the state’s availability of healthcare workers and volunteers. CVS will give vaccine doses away for free. Yet, the company won’t offer them to everyone right away.
According to Northam, CVS selected locations for this program in a way that prioritized certain demographics. They focused on CVS pharmacies in disadvantaged communities, areas of the state with more elderly residents or with larger low-income populations. But CVS officials will still administer doses of the COVID-19 vaccine according to local guidelines. Right now, that means appointments will be available to people who qualify under phases 1a and 1b in Virginia. This includes healthcare workers, elderly people, emergency responders, teachers and frontline workers like grocery clerks and public transit employees.
Registration for vaccination appointments will be available on the CVS website or by calling (800) 746-7287. However, in the short-term, appointments will only be granted to people 65 or older, who have also already pre-registered with their local health department. “Per the guidance of the Virginia Department of Health, only individuals who are on their local health department’s wait list are eligible to schedule their appointments at CVS Pharmacy,” a Feb. 8 press release explained.
New River Valley as Case-in-Point
This isn’t the first time that guidance on vaccination has lacked clarity. Northam said on Feb. 5 that in the past week, his administration has worked to issue clear guidance to Virginia health districts on how and when to vaccinate people. The Virginia Department of Health also worked with hospitals to shift doses of the vaccine from regions that couldn’t use them to regions lacking sufficient first-dose supply.
But health districts (and the people who live in them) are still confused and frustrated. The New River Health District in Southwest Virginia is a good case-in-point.
During her weekly update on Feb. 4, Dr. Noelle Bissell described the public’s anxiety. Folks are so eager to get their shot, she said, that some people eligible to be vaccinated in phase 1b are making appointments at multiple clinic locations. Bissell, the director of the New River Health District, said this practice has created headaches for staff. They have already spent an estimated 400 hours trying to reconcile duplicate appointments.
Northam pointed out that the southwest region is among those making the best progress at vaccinating its population. Progress would be even quicker, though, if the region had adequate supply.
Right now, Bissell said during her update, the health district is receiving only 2,000 doses per week from VDH. The district includes four counties and the city of Radford, encompassing a population of about 183,000 people.
Other Pharmacies Are on Deck
The partnership with CVS pharmacies is only the first phase of the plan to get more shots in arms. According to Northam, CVS was chosen as the first pharmacy for the rollout because it has the most locations of any pharmacy in Virginia.
In coming weeks, other retail and pharmacy locations, including Walmart, Walgreens and Kroger, will establish similar programs, Northam said.
Other developments are coming too. After seeing record-high case counts, hospitalizations and deaths in January, Northam said, those metrics are all trending down now. However, new variants of the coronavirus are being discovered and tend to be more contagious than the original strain. So on an individual level, it’s important that people continue to follow public health guidance like wearing face masks and maintaining physical distance. The state also needs to keep increasing its capacity to vaccinate.
Beginning Feb. 6, 750 new workers will begin training to staff Virginia’s COVID-19 call center, Northam said. Virginians can call 877-275-8343 for information about vaccine eligibility and to pre-register for an appointment.
Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].