Pharmacies Key to Delivering COVID-19 Vaccines to Underserved Communities

Nearly half of community pharmacies in the federal retail pharmacy program are located in zip codes with high social vulnerability scores – a CDC index that uses 15 U.S. census variables to identify communities that might need support. That is proving critical in the effort to get vulnerable populations vaccinated against COVID-19. Here are more details.

WASHINGTON, DC – The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on a troubling trend: Certain vulnerable populations are more likely to contract and suffer bad outcomes from infection. Now, the challenge is getting vaccinations to those groups, and the role of community pharmacists has proven to be critical.

“Since early in the pandemic, it’s been clear that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected certain groups in the United States, particularly Blacks, Latino, Native American communities, as well as in rural and low-income communities,” points out Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, director of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These communities have experienced longstanding disparities in access to care and services which have been further exacerbated during the pandemic. And I worry that these disparities will have health consequences that far outlast the infectious disease aspects of this pandemic,” she adds.

The Biden administration is seeking to better focus vaccination efforts on those communities, and local pharmacies are playing an outsized role in doing that.

While it is no surprise that, in the past two months, 60% of doses at federally-run community vaccination sites were administered to Americans of color, the White House also announced that, in the federal retail pharmacy program, 45% of sites were located in zip codes with high social vulnerability scores – a CDC index that uses 15 U.S. census variables to identify communities that might need support.

The nearly 50,000 sites where Americans can get a shot currently includes 16,000 local pharmacies in the federal pharmacy program. “Millions of Americans can now get a shot in their local pharmacy the exact same way they get their flu shot. We will increase the total number of participating pharmacies to more than 20,000,” the Biden administration announced.

In an annual report on COVID-19, National Community Pharmacists Association president Brian Caswell notes that “there’s still work to do. The Biden administration has set the bar high; the president wants 150 million people immunized in his first 100 days in office. Many independent pharmacies are involved in the vaccination effort, and we hope that increases – and that we get the vaccine to make it happen. NCPA continues to advocate daily for more community pharmacy involvement.”

Caswell tells community pharmacists, “ You can help: Reach out to local and state health officials. Let them know you’re ready to vaccinate. Work with your patients, too. Just as you’ve answered questions about the virus itself for the past year, now you need to share what you know about the vaccines. Many of your patients are relying on bad or questionable information from social media and “friends.” It’s our job to debunk a lot of that. Be straight with your patients. Tell them how important this is.”

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