The effort comes after the government missed its often-stated goal of vaccinating 20 million Americans by the end of December. In the absence of a national plan, states had taken their own measures, such as threatening large fines for hospitals that did not use all of their shots and requiring retired health workers and dentists to set up vaccination centers for staff.
Almost 40,000 pharmacies – such as Costco, Rite Aid, and Walmart – are involved in the program, though only a few thousand will receive vaccines in two weeks. In the next few days, Operation Warp Speed officials plan to make recommendations as to which two or three pharmacy chains should receive vaccines in each jurisdiction, though it is ultimately up to states to decide.
Federal officials are also encouraging states to move beyond frontline health workers to other priority groups, such as non-essential workers or older adults, when vaccines are not being used on store shelves.
The public-private partnership starts earlier than expected, said Mitchel Rothholz, director of vaccination policy for the American Pharmacists Association.
“That doesn’t mean people won’t be able to improve,” Rothholz said, adding that the move could speed up vaccinations.
The decision was made at Camp David, where HHS Secretary Alex Azar called a meeting with Federal Health and Operation Warp Speed officials to discuss vaccines and therapeutics in the final days of administration. Participants included Paul Ostrowski, Head of Delivery, Production and Sales at OWS; Moncef Slaoui, OWS vaccine chief; and General Gustave Perna, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed.
In a statement, Michael Pratt, a spokesman for Operation Warp Speed, said the meeting was aimed at “providing additional assistance and recommendations to certain jurisdictions to increase vaccinations and coverage”.
Although federal officials have stated that the pharmacy program is designed to help ensure access to vaccines in medically underserved areas, public health experts could bypass the low-income and minority populations hit hardest by the pandemic, who have access to stand-alone pharmacies and such in grocery stores. The experts have suggested a wider mix of distribution locations, including schools and churches, as well as pharmacies, hospitals and clinics.