COVID-19 vaccines to stress-test grocery stores and pharmacies

CVS, Walgreens, Kroger and others will require appointments, hope to avoid logjams as they join national effort

Some of America's biggest retailers are preparing to take a central role in administering Covid-19 shots, hoping to avoid logjams and other complications that have slowed the vaccine rollout's early days.

The U.S. fell far short of its initial goal of inoculating 20 million people by the end of 2020, with health departments, hospital systems and long-term-care facilities beset by supply-chain bottlenecks, vaccine hesitancy and confusing, scattershot systems for making appointments.

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Not all Americans are eligible for the vaccines, and shots remain in short supply. But vaccines are becoming more broadly available in some states, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aims to make them available in local pharmacies beginning next month. There is no cost to receive the vaccine.

Ticker Security Last Change Change %
CVS CVS HEALTH CORP. 88.32 +0.64 +0.73%
WBA WALGREENS BOOTS ALLIANCE, INC. 48.31 -0.91 -1.85%
KR THE KROGER CO. 39.96 -0.37 -0.92%
WMT WALMART, INC. 148.75 -1.31 -0.87%

(Check the WSJ's state-by-state guide.)

The job of vaccinating large swaths of the population will fall largely on retail pharmacies, with companies such as CVS Health Corp., Walgreens-Boots Alliance Inc., Walmart Inc. and Kroger Co. saying they are prepared to give tens of millions of shots a month.

"We're going to have to look at ways to increase our access points. We've got to be able to step up the pace to vaccinate people across the country if we want to make a dent in this," said Bart Buxton, co-chair of the Covid-19 vaccine taskforce for McLaren Health Care Corp. The Flint, Mich.-based hospital system teamed with Walgreens to administer doses to its 26,000 employees as part of the first phase of vaccinations.

Hospitals and health systems, already overwhelmed by treating coronavirus patients, can't also bear the brunt of vaccinations, Mr. Buxton said. "Health systems like McLaren can't do this by themselves."

Pharmacies are well-positioned to play a major role in Covid-19 vaccination efforts, industry executives say, because they are among the most-accessible health-care providers for many Americans, including people 65 and older who often pick up medication from local supermarkets or drugstores. These businesses say they also can draw from their experience in providing shots for flu, shingles and other illnesses.

CVS and Walgreens combined have 19,000 U.S. stores, while Walmart, Rite Aid Corp., Kroger and Publix Super Markets Inc., together have another 11,000 locations. Add to that dozens of regional grocers with pharmacy counters.

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CVS says it can vaccinate 20 million to 25 million people a month once supplies are available. Walmart said in January that it would be able to vaccinate 10 million to 13 million a month.

President Biden said last Monday that his target of administering 100 million Covid-19 vaccines in his first 100 days in office might rise to 150 million. As of Friday, 27.9 million shots had been administessred, out of 49.2 million distributed since mid-December, according to CDC data.

A medical staff member prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Tudor Ranch in Mecca, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Drugstore chains and retailers with pharmacies say they have the manpower and physical space to handle mass vaccinations and, in some areas, have already stepped in to help local and state officials. Big chains say they have online scheduling tools capable of handling an influx of appointments.

Walgreens has said it plans to hire about 25,000 people across the U.S. to administer the vaccine. It employs 75,000 pharmacists and technicians. CVS, which employs 34,000 pharmacists and 65,000 technicians, declined to say how many workers it is hiring.

Among the biggest challenges now for retailers is dealing with customers eager to know when it's their turn.

"We're doing everything in our power to avoid confusion about how to get vaccinated," a CVS spokesman said. In addition to long-term care facilities, the drugstore chain is offering shots to select groups in Indiana, Massachusetts, New York and Puerto Rico. People eligible for a vaccine must make an appointment.

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"We answer that question dozens, hundreds of times a day," Charlie Hartig, chief executive of Hartig Drug Stores, a small Midwestern chain, said of the question of vaccine availability. "Education is taking up time."

Associated Food Stores, a cooperative of more than 400 supermarkets and nearly 40 pharmacies, is working through how its staff will report vaccinations and quickly process claims.

For Associated Food, scheduling has been an area of focus, said Chris Sheard, who oversees pharmacy operations at the company. Its pharmacies have largely operated on a walk-in basis and now are asking customers to schedule appointments for Covid-19 vaccines so it can ensure distancing and cleaning.

"People would walk up during their lunch break. We can't do that now," Mr. Sheard said. The company is trying to get the word out by increasing marketing and social-media efforts, and by providing wait lists where people can sign up.

Others are hunting for space to give out inoculations and partnering with organizations to set up mass vaccination events. Iowa-based grocer Hy-Vee Inc. is working with a local university to set up vaccination stations in a 16,000-square-foot facility, Aaron Wiese, chief health officer at the company, said.

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"You're looking at a significantly greater number when you're saying 65 and up and people with underlying conditions," Mr. Wiese said. "Add on other essential workers, you're going to need more capacity."

Hy-Vee plans to use greenhouses, which are temperature controlled and suitable for larger groups. The retailer also started testing so-called waiting pods, where customers can wait after receiving vaccinations, and RVs with exam rooms. Hy-Vee plans to deploy RVs when it goes to manufacturing plants to immunize staff there, Mr. Wiese said.

Mass vaccinations will require a robust online-booking system, said America Davis, communications coordinator for Immunize Nevada, a nonprofit that has set up a website to schedule appointments in the state. It has been scrambling to keep the site working amid crushing demand.

"Health and local officials are literally working around the clock to be sure we're doing this right," she said. "I don't think anyone anticipated just what the uptake of this vaccine would be."