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The Critical Role of Retail Pharmacies in the Distribution of COVID-19 Vaccines

By Ken Perez, VP of Healthcare Policy, Omnicell, Inc.

The whole world eagerly, desperately awaits the approval and availability of at least one safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. Given the immense, global impact of the current pandemic, it is tempting to imagine that the vaccines will be distributed along the lines of a Hollywood movie script, with the U.S. military dramatically mobilized for the effort.

But as Drew Altman, president and chief executive officer of the Kaiser Family Foundation, recently noted, “[I]n the end that process will almost certainly rely heavily on the pharmacies, doctors and community hospitals we’re all familiar with.”1

Given the sheer number of Americans that will need to be immunized in order to achieve “herd immunity”—frequently and minimally estimated at 60% of the U.S. population or about 200 million people—retail pharmacies will be a key channel for immunizing the populace.

It’s a role they are used to playing. About three-fourths of retail pharmacies offer immunization services, and pharmacists are able to administer influenza vaccinations in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, accounting for 30% of influenza vaccines administered in adults each year.2,3 Walgreens, which launched its immunization program in the mid-2000s, has administered more than 60 million vaccines since 2010, including influenza, pneumococcal, meningitis, measles, typhoid, polio, and travel-related vaccines.4

Government Approval

As for COVID-19 vaccine administration, recently, the U.S. federal government gave Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, and the pharmacies of Walmart and several U.S. grocery store chains approval to conduct COVID-19 vaccinations.5 In addition, on Sept. 9, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP Act) that “authorizes state-licensed pharmacists to order and administer, and state-licensed or registered pharmacy interns acting under the supervision of the qualified pharmacist to administer, COVID-19 vaccinations to persons ages three or older, subject to certain requirements.6 Reflecting the retail pharmacy industry’s readiness to play this role, Larry Merlo, president and chief executive officer of CVS Health, said, “We are well positioned to administer COVID-19 vaccines, once they become available, through our community presence …”7

Accessibility and Convenience

Retail pharmacies’ off-clinic hours availability will enable them to handle a significant proportion of the COVID-19 vaccinations, given the expected enormous demand. A study of all vaccinations given at the Walgreens pharmacy chain between August 2011 and July 2012 found that for over six million vaccinations administered, 30.5% were provided during off-clinic hours—on weekends, evenings, and holidays.8 Saliently, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that retail pharmacies assist in vaccinating 80% of the population seven weeks sooner during a pandemic than otherwise would be possible.9

Allaying Fears

Pharmacists could also help alleviate the fears of the roughly one-third of Americans who say that they will not get a free, FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine. As with vaccines in general, concern about side effects—such as the unfounded fear that vaccines cause autism—is the dominant reason for avoiding the coronavirus vaccine. Pharmacists can dispel such myths and provide evidence-based answers to questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine and possible side effects.

Vaccine Check-Ups

In addition, administration of the coronavirus vaccine in retail pharmacies will allow pharmacists to encourage patients and their family members to catch up on vaccines they skipped as a result of the pandemic.


In August, the U.S. federal government named McKesson as the main distributor of COVID-19 vaccines throughout the nation.10 That development, combined with the aforementioned government approval of retail pharmacy chains, pharmacists and pharmacy interns to administer the vaccines, means that the traditional downstream players in the drug supply chain have been lined up, materially increasing the chance of an efficient, patient-centric coronavirus vaccine rollout in 2021.


  1. Altman, Drew, “Pharmacies, not the military, will handle COVID-19 vaccinations,” Axios,, Aug. 31, 2020.
  2. MacDonald, Joan Vos, “State Laws and Vaccination Services,“ Drug Topics,, Dec. 17, 2019.
  3. Levy, Sandra, “Immunization Nation: Pharmacist vaccination offers key resource against disease,” Drug Store News,, Aug. 7, 2020.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Anonymous, “Walgreens and CVS Pharmacists receive U.S. Government nod to conduct COVID-19 vaccination,” News Degree,, Aug. 31, 2020.
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Trump Administration Takes Action to Expand Access to COVID-19 Vaccines,”, Sept. 9, 2020.
  7. Brown, Danielle, “CVS Health ‘well positioned’ to serve LTC with future COVID-19 vaccine,” McKnights Long-Term Care News,,CVS%20Health%20’well%20positioned’%20to%20serve%20LTC,with%20future%20COVID%2D19%20vaccine&text=Long%2Dterm%20care%20facilities%20that,ready%2C%20executives%20stated%20Wednesday%20morning., Aug. 6, 2020.
  8. Goad, Jeffrey A., et al., “Vaccinations Administered During Off-Clinic Hours at a National Community Pharmacy: Implications for Increasing Patient Access and Convenience,” Annals of Family Medicine, September 2013.
  9. Levy, loc. cit.
  10. Hopkins, Jared S., “U.S. Taps a Covid Vaccine Distributor,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 15-16, 2020.

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