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Covid-19 Vaccine Demand Strains CVS, Walgreens

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The U.S. has plenty of Covid-19 vaccines but retail pharmacies are struggling to quickly administer them in some places.

Vaccine seekers in some states face waits of days or weeks for doses as local health officials hustle to improve access to meet surging demand. CVS Health Corp., Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and Walmart Inc., which are facing staffing shortages, now say they may not be able to accommodate people without appointments.

Millions of Americans are newly eligible for booster shots, and federal health officials in November recommended the vaccine for use in children as young as 5 years old. Concerns about the risks posed by the new Omicron variant also are driving more people to get vaccinated, health officials say.

An average of 1.4 million doses were administered daily in the U.S. in the week ended Thursday, a 22% increase from the previous week, which included Thanksgiving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are 100 million Americans eligible for boosters who have not yet gotten them, the White House said Thursday, adding that retail pharmacies are providing about two-thirds of the nation’s Covid-19 vaccinations. The U.S. has increased its reliance on those operations for nationwide Covid-19 testing and vaccine distribution through a federal partnership with nearly two dozen chains.

The chains, particularly CVS and Walgreens, have embraced the responsibility as vaccines generate profits, bring customers into stores and as both companies look to expand deeper into healthcare. But the pharmacies have also struggled with staffing their locations amid a national labor shortage, which has caused some locations to limit hours or close drive-throughs as the companies work to hire thousands more pharmacists and pharmacist technicians.

“Demand for vaccinations is particularly high at this time so we encourage people to schedule their appointments in advance,” Walgreens said.

A Walgreens spokeswoman said the company is hiring thousands of workers and offering bonuses to employees who get certified to administer vaccines. She said that starting next week, about half of the company’s appointments nationwide are open.

CVS said it has open appointments and an ample supply of doses for at least the next two weeks, though it is possible people will face waits in stores or need to schedule an appointment out a week or more.

In many parts of the country, vaccines are readily available with no waiting, according to the White House and pharmacy chains. Health officials and pharmacy chains say they expect the surge in vaccine demand is temporary because of boosters and pediatric doses becoming available within weeks of one another, and should abate within a couple of weeks.

In recent days, governors in states including Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire have said they are working to increase availability. Several states and counties have reopened mass vaccination sites closed months earlier to inoculate people who can’t get appointments with a physician or at a drugstore.

In Virginia, where the state recently opened nine vaccination sites, between 1,000 and 5,000 people a day came in for shots during much of November, said Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccination coordinator. Tuesday’s total was about 9,200, he said.

“Everyone that’s available to put a shot in an arm is doing it,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said Tuesday as he announced that the state would open 15 community sites to improve vaccine availability.

Carol Mannette, of Portland, Maine, said she has been trying for days to get an appointment for a booster shot. She searched for online appointments at her local CVS, Walmart and a grocery-store pharmacy, but they had no openings until later in the month. Her primary-care doctor had no available doses, and a nearby health system told her it is only vaccinating existing patients, she said.

This is crazy,” she said. “Covid is everywhere and we are one of the states with the highest hospitalizations, and we can’t get boosters in a timely manner.”

The White House on Thursday said the federal pharmacy partnership is taking steps to expand vaccine availability by adding capacity and ensuring stores are open at convenient times, including evenings and weekends.

CVS said it hired 23,000 pharmacists, pharmacist technicians and other workers in recent months to aid in administering Covid-19 vaccines and tests. The company declined to say if the hiring spree raised employment levels.

Confusion over the ability of drugstores to give shots to people who walk in without appointments is adding to the problem, several local health officials said.

For months, retail pharmacies and the White House touted the fact that people could walk into a drugstore and get a shot without an appointment as evidence that the U.S. vaccine efforts succeeded after a rocky start.

“That message to just go ahead and walk in might be appealing but it doesn’t work very well,” said Dr. Matt Willis, public health officer for Marin County, Calif.

He said the county has begun distributing postcards listing government-run vaccine sites at pharmacies, asking that they be given to people who get turned away for shots.

Some Walmart pharmacies have stopped offering walk-in Covid-19 vaccine appointments because demand was overwhelming, according to several store workers around the country.

Instead those who want a vaccine can book a slot online in those stores, said the workers. In some cases, the wait time to book an appointment is weeks, said some workers.

Walmart is still accepting walk-ins for vaccinations, a company spokeswoman said, but the company recommends people make an appointment. “What we have guided our pharmacies to do is try to help the customer,” she said.

A group representing the country’s family doctors is lobbying the federal government to send more doses to primary-care physicians to increase access.

“The retail pharmacies just don’t have the staffing to do everything they need to do,” said American Academy of Family Physicians President Dr. Sterling Ransone. He said states have different methods for allotting available doses, and in many cases, physicians aren’t able to get enough vaccines.

Write to Sharon Terlep at [email protected], Tarini Parti at [email protected] and Sarah Nassauer at [email protected]

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