2021. So far for pharmacies, it’s been a wild ride. The much-anticipated advent of the COVID vaccine(s) has spawned additional issues with rollout and availability capabilities — many of which can be tied back to misinformation, corporate territorialism, and lack of proper planning.

Does anyone else hear a common PBM theme here?

States that are excelling in the vaccination effort are those including their local independent pharmacies in all phases of distribution. In an MSNBC interview this month, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice noted that “instead of letting vaccines sit on shelves we saw that our elderly wanted to go to their local pharmacies and clinics… We incorporated everybody together… and said we’re not going to let vaccines sit on shelves.” And, in a January interview on Face the Nation, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson remarked, “Our independent pharmacies are doing a better job of getting it (the vaccine) out. They’re acting with more urgency than the chain pharmacies.”

The facts are that the CVS/Walgreens partnership was allocated more than 4.7 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but as of mid-January — a month after rollout began in many states — had only administered a quarter of those vaccines. In states like Mississippi, that translated to only 5% of the state’s initially allocated shots administered to their most vulnerable populations. Statistics that abysmal can only be construed as either the chains are saving doses for second round inoculations, or incapable of doing the job they were contracted to accomplish. And while one would hope that it’s the former, not the latter, even saving doses isn’t necessary. Both Pfizer and Moderna have made clear that new shipments will cover those second rounds .. so why is there a shortage?

It has long been reported by even their own employees that major chains like CVS and Walgreens are understaffed to the point of patient danger, and large numbers of what they themselves call “retail locations” (as opposed to ‘pharmacies’) obviously do not translate into the amount of trained medical personnel necessary to effectively administer vaccines to the single portion of the population they were contracted to vaccinate. Whether or not this factors into their ongoing vaccination rollout issues, we may never know.

The truth is that if CVS/Walgreens were not either “holding back” doses for second round inoculation or caught in a web of their own ineptitude with regards to their LTC government contract, far more shots could have gone into arms — and far more shots would be available to our swiftly dying population. Look at the independent pharmacy rollouts in West Virginia, North Dakota, and Louisiana. They’re not holding back doses, or lacking the ability to get doses administered. They’re getting them into the arms of the population that needs them most — and receiving the doses for second rounds. The statistics prove it. West Virginia alone has achieved a 50% drop in hospitalizations and a 45% drop in deaths since the inception of their vaccine rollout — a substantial difference over states who choose to rely solely on giant corporation-driven control.

Patients trust their local independent pharmacies, and have for generations. When it comes to easily accessible advice on medication-related questions and issues, their local pharmacy is a patient’s preferred go-to. Not a chain ‘retail’ store that places more importance on superstore mentality than individualized patient care — which may explain CVS and Walgreens’ claims that lack of consent is a large part of the reason they’ve been unsuccessful.

The PBM-owned pharmacies at the helm of America’s vaccine effort are, in essence, proving the necessity of PBM reform. Independent pharmacies nationwide are licensed, willing, Trusted partners in the ‘arms race’ on one of the most important vaccines in history. Giant corporations playing territorial hardball are not the answer. As The Washington Post recently wrote, “The strong performance by local pharmacies in distributing lifesaving vaccines makes that clear.”

Jeremy Counts, PharmD

Main Street Pharmacy

Blacksburg, VA