CVS and Walgreens: They Might Be Giants But Independent Pharmacy is Winning the (COVID) “Arms” Race

A Louisiana independent pharmacist administers the COVID vaccine to a local patient. Photo courtesy of Collin Richie

Carl Savoie’s mother died alone in a nursing home.

“She didn’t die from illness. She died of loneliness,” the Opelousas, Louisiana-based pharmacist and owner of Carl’s Thrifty Way Pharmacy told local newspaper the Daily World. “She never got to touch her grandkids anymore. The residents at the nursing home had become shut-ins.”

Savoie is among the nation’s thousands of independent pharmacists and pharmacy owners who are mobilized and vaccinating as many Americans as possible against COVID-19.

After learning he would receive a substantially larger number of vaccine doses than the standard 100 doses community pharmacies were being given by the State of Louisiana, Savoie immediately jumped into action recruiting volunteers and setting up a drive-through clinic at a local church.

Over the course of 2 days, Savoie and team vaccinated 975 Louisiana senior citizens.

“Because of (my mother), this was just something that I wanted to do for the parish, giving back to the people here. It wasn’t about my customers or my store. It wasn’t for fame or notoriety. It’s just to me, there never has been anything as important as this,” Savoie said that day.

Savoie is not alone — not in his home state where the Louisiana Independent Pharmacies Association (LIPA) currently employs a COVID vaccine coordinator to assist its 300+ member pharmacies — and not in the rest of the country where community pharmacies in other states including West Virginia, Maine, Arkansas, and New York have risen to the challenge of vaccinating hundreds of patients a day when vaccine is available.

“Community pharmacies are successful with the vaccine rollout precisely because they are tapped into their communities,” says Randal Johnson, LIPA President and CEO. “This isn’t about metrics and or being the center of attention. Independent pharmacies care for the people in their communities because the people in their communities are neighbors, family and friends.”

Johnson says their pharmacies were able to receive vaccines directly from Pfizer in special thermal shipping containers packed with dry ice to maintain vaccine temperature integry while getting doses into arms within a week, thus alleviating any concerns about the ability of small pharmacies to manage direct shipments of vaccine.

Retired Louisiana State Medicaid Director Ruth Kennedy, now LIPA’s COVID vaccine coordinator, says “Our independent pharmacies in Louisiana have more than amply demonstrated that they are the key to getting vaccines from vials to arms. All they need is the opportunity — and in our case, opportunity means vaccine!”

Although independent pharmacies were largely left out of the federal government’s Pharmacy Partnership for Long Term Care program, an agreement that mostly relies on CVS and Walgreens to administer vaccinations at long-term care facilities across the country, it hasn’t stopped small business pharmacies from stepping up to the challenge of finding ways to quickly, safely and efficiently administer COVID vaccinations in their communities.

Unfortunately for the retail pharmacy giants, several frustrated state governors have begun speaking out about CVS and Walgreens’ disappointing results, saying distributing through CVS and Walgreens “isn’t working” and, in the case of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, accusing the giants of “punching under their weight.”

“It’s like no one did basic research before agreeing to give the project reins over,” says PUTT President Scott Newman, whose own pharmacy is one of 5 independents in the greater Chesapeake, Virginia area to assist with vaccinating eligible Virginia residents. “CVS and Walgreens have been cutting staff. CVS’ inability to keep up with just filling prescriptions is well documented. Why CVS and Walgreens would be entrusted with the job of vaccinating millions of vulnerable Americans when they can barely keep up with their core business is a question people should be asking.”

Under scrutiny and pushing back against complaints of their very public failure to meet basic vaccine rollout goals, Walgreens has pointed a finger at health care workers for declining to be vaccinated while CVS’s chief medical officer, Dr. Troy Brennan, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan the dismal rate of vaccination distribution was “all part of the program that was well understood by everyone who was involved from the state departments to the federal government” — presumably implying state governors shouldn’t be surprised by the chaos or failure to meet benchmarks.

And yet there were no complaints from West Virginia, and no reports of chaos.

In the first week of rollout, the Mountain State had administered nearly all of its available vaccine thanks in large part to the work of independent pharmacies and the absence of giant retailers CVS and Walgreens. Because many of their long term care facilities have existing relationships with community pharmacies, vaccinating the target populations went, well, according to plan.

To comply with its own plan, Maine began shifting COVID vaccine doses away from CVS and Walgreens, citing “principles of velocity and equity” as reasons to go with independent pharmacies. CVS and Walgreens tap-danced around the shift, saying it wasn’t an issue of pace so much as already having “more doses than planned.”

In Louisiana, Carl Savoie and his fellow independent pharmacies are administering vaccinations as soon as doses become available, especially picking up slack in parishes where there’s limited or even no CVS or Walgreens presence. And because they are so dialed in, Louisiana pharmacies are also bringing vaccine — and hope — to smaller congregate living settings who feel as if they’ve been overlooked.

“Some of our local elderly and assisted living facilities were falling through the cracks. They were told their residents would be vaccinated by pharmacists sent from the national chains, but they were never contacted and their calls were never returned.” says Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based pharmacist and pharmacy owner, TJ Woodard. Last week, Woodard and his team administered more than 100 vaccine doses to residents at a local assisted living facility in a space of a few hours, one of many such clinics he and his staff have conducted since learning they would be included in the state’s vaccine rollout. “We’ve now done this enough that we know we can vaccinate several hundred people a day. We’re here, we’re ready. As usual, when others overpromise and underdeliver, at the expense of the health and welfare of our friends and neighbors, independent pharmacies are happy to step in and help carry the load.”

Regardless of who administers the COVID vaccine, the process is an undeniable logistical nightmare fraught with time consuming scheduling, paperwork and reporting requirements. Pharmacies are inundated with thousands of calls from patients and members of the general public seeking assistance for themselves or loved ones while reports of extra doses, missing doses, reallocated doses, calls from state governors for higher shipments of doses and much more continue to bombard and confuse Americans.

But perhaps it’s Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, whose state made history when SCOTUS ruled in favor of Arkansas’ Act 900 in Rutledge v. PCMA, who sums up this unprecedented “arms” race best. When asked on Face the Nation about the difficulties with CVS and Walgreens, Hutchinson said, “The independent pharmacies are doing a better job … they’re acting with more urgency.”

PUTT is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating on behalf of independent pharmacy & fighting against PBM anti-competitive business tactics.