The US Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday it is partnering with large chain pharmacies and networks that represent independent pharmacies to increase vaccine access in anticipation of a Covid-19 vaccine authorization or approval.
Walmart, Walgreens, Kroger, CVS, Costco, Publix Super Markets Inc. and others have signed onto the agreement as of November 6, HHS said. The pharmacy partnership covers about 60% of pharmacies in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
HHS Services Secretary Alex Azar said the agreement will take advantage of this existing private sector infrastructure to get vaccines out to communities as quickly as possible for no out-of-pocket cost.
“The vast majority of Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy, and our new agreement with pharmacy partners across America is a critical step toward making sure all Americans have access to safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines,” Azar said in a statement.
Paul Ostrowski, director of distribution for Operation Warp Speed, told CNN that he wanted "to make the distribution of this just as easy as a normal influenza vaccine."
“We're ready to go today, and one has to look no further than their local drugstore today," he said.
The first vaccine expected to receive authorization, made by Pfizer, is different from the flu vaccine – or any other vaccine – in one important way. It has to be stored at minus 75 degrees Celsius, which is 50 degrees colder than any other vaccine in the United States. Doctors’ offices and pharmacies do not have freezers that go nearly that low.
Pfizer is supplying “thermal shippers” for the vaccine that must be replenished with dry ice. Ostrowski said UPS would provide dry ice reshipments throughout the US upon demand, although he did not say how this would be funded.
“We're not going to send a vaccine to a place that can’t administer it,” said Ostrowski. “We’re going to push those vaccines to places where we know that they can either have storage or we will refill them with dry ice as necessary throughout the process."
He noted that the vaccine can be stored in regular refrigeration for up to five days.
CNN previously reported that in a letter on October 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked states to be ready to receive Pfizer's vaccine by November 15. State officials interviewed by CNN said it was unlikely they could be.
A review by CNN of the 46 state vaccine plans that are online shows only a few states have detailed plans for maintaining the vaccine's ultra-low temperature storage.
Ostrowski said strike teams from the CDC were being deployed to make sure states were ready, and that states have been provided access to major pharmacies, “which are very, very good at administering vaccines."
Ostrowski, a retired Army lieutenant general, said that “within 24 hours” of the FDA granting emergency authorization for a vaccine, “our trucks will be rolling.”