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COVID vaccines are reaching hundreds of pharmacies this week. In small towns, that’s a ray of hope

February 12, 2021, 9:53 PM UTC

One hundred doses of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine arrived at Hillcrest Pharmacy in Vernon, Texas on the afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 10.

“It was a big sense of relief,” says Adam Bayer, who runs Hillcrest along with his wife Traci, both of them pharmacists.

These were the first vaccine doses to arrive in Vernon, an agricultural town of about 11,000 two and a half hours northwest of Fort Worth, through a new Federal plan for distributing vaccines through pharmacies. Previously, nearly all vaccine doses that made it to Vernon were reserved for healthcare workers.

One hundred doses isn’t much, even in a small town. But for folks in Vernon, they represent a ray of hope in a difficult period.

“I’m friends with the owner of the funeral home here,” Bayer says. “It’s been a really trying time for him. He’s been really busy.” Vernon is the seat of Wilbarger County, which has reported 1,182 COVID-19 cases and 50 deaths.

The doses are the first to arrive under a new federal program, initiated under the Trump administration, to send vaccine directly to pharmacies. A total of 1 million doses per week will go to about 6,500 pharmacies nationwide. Many of those will be part of national chains such as CVS and Walmart.

But Hillcrest Pharmacy is independently-owned, and was able to participate in the new program through the Good Neighbor Pharmacy network, a membership organization run by medical supplier Amerisource Bergen, which provides back-office support to independent pharmacies.

“We engaged with the CDC back in early Fall, when they were thinking about vaccine distribution,” says Jenni Zilka, who heads pharmacy field programs for Good Neighbor. “The more we talked with them, the more we realized that, from a size and scale perspective, it would be very challenging for the CDC to contract with each individual pharmacy.”

So Good Neighbor and Amerisource decided to act as a network administrator for member pharmacies. So far, 102 independent pharmacies in Kentucky, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, and Guam have been able to join the federal pharmacy vaccination program through Good Neighbor. And 1,700 are ready to join the program, which is projected to expand both the number of participating pharmacies, and the number of doses pharmacies receive.

The expansion of vaccinations to pharmacies—independent or chain—will be important to making vaccination more accessible. In Texas, for instance, many vaccination “hubs” are located in major cities, creating logistical barriers for rural patients who don’t want to drive long distances.

But the ability to get vaccinated by someone you know may be just as important, according to Good Neighbor president Brian Nightengale.

At a large-scale site, patients “are going to go see a stranger,” says Nightengale. “And if they have questions, they might not even go to that site and ask those questions. But if they know their pharmacist, they can walk into their pharmacy or pick up the phone.”

That’s particularly important because many Americans report some degree of hesitation to take the vaccine—about 27%, according to a December survey by KFF. But pharmacists often have longstanding relationships and frequent contact with patients (many see pharmacists more often than doctors), and the trust that comes with that may help them overcome their uncertainty.

That, Nightengale explains, applies not only to rural pharmacies, but to neighborhood pharmacies in big cities. Those locations often serve minority populations, who have been broadly more at risk during the pandemic, but may also be more hesitant to be vaccinated.

Vaccination through pharmacies may also help address another challenge to fair vaccine distribution. A new study this week points to the widespread use of online registration as a barrier to vaccination for older and lower-income groups.

But local pharmacists, thanks to their familiarity with the community, can help make that impersonal process work better. Hillcrest, for instance, does have an online registration portal. But Adam Bayer says he and his team have been working directly with patients who struggled with the digital process.

“When you’re dealing with someone who’s 85, they sometimes can’t manage [signing up online]. This goes back to knowing our customers—we know who can manage that and who can’t, [so] we’ve spent a lot of time on the phone.”