March 31, 2021
A year into the coronavirus pandemic, and there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel: Covid-19 vaccines have been approved by the FDA and are being distributed across the country, with priority groups like healthcare workers, older patients, and high-risk patients being first in line.
As vaccines get distributed, retail pharmacies are presented with an opportunity not only to make their communities healthier and safer but also to market their brand and make a profit. Brian Meyer, pharmacist and owner of Sunflower Rx in Odessa, Texas, became one of the first-round providers of the vaccine in his community, which turned into a chance to connect with new patients.
Since every provider is eager to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine, getting hands on doses early in the game is a challenge for independent pharmacies. Sunflower Rx is partnered with Health Mart, which let Meyer know they would have a first round of vaccines available to their pharmacies. But even though the vaccine was available, there were still hoops to jump through before Sunflower Rx was approved by the Texas Department of State Health Services to become one of the first providers. The total approval process took about a month.
On top of that, the pharmacy had to make some purchases before they were ready to receive the vaccine, including a freezer and digital data loggers, which are required to ensure vaccines are always kept at appropriate temperatures.
Of the two vaccines currently in distribution, Pfizer-BioNTech’s requires storage in special, super-cold freezers kept between -76 and -112 degrees Fahrenheit. Sunflower Rx didn’t have access to that kind of specialty equipment, and instead bought a standard chest freezer to store 100 doses of Moderna’s vaccine, which only needs to be stored between 5 and -13 degrees Fahrenheit.
Initially, Meyer thought the pharmacy would have to advertise the vaccine and convince people to come in to get the shot. ″But word spread really quickly,″ he said. Within a single day, the pharmacy had administered every one of the Moderna shots it had received.
The message got out to community members via doctor’s offices and hospitals, which sent qualified patients over to get the vaccine. Meyer followed the Texas Department of State Health Services guidelines for who to prioritize, which at that time included healthcare workers, people 65 and older, and people who have other health conditions that predispose them to complications from Covid-19—including cancer, kidney disease, heart disease, obesity, and more.
The vaccinations came with a screening form that asks patients about things like allergic reactions, but when it came to verifying that people had health conditions, Meyer decided to take their word for it, as the Texas Department of State Health Services doesn’t currently require documentation. ″I think if you require documentation like some people have from the doctor’s office, it would probably hinder a lot of people from getting it,″ he said. ″Eventually, everyone does need to have it, so we’re just trying to get it out as quickly as possible.″
With such a high demand for the vaccine, Meyer and Sunflower Rx were faced with the challenge of vaccinating 100 people in one day, all while keeping them safe and socially distanced. ″We found it a lot more efficient to schedule people to come in a few at a time, every 10 or 15 minutes,″ Meyer said. ″That allowed people to social distance, and we were able to get people in all day long.″ This system was also more efficient for patients. Instead of spending their day waiting in line, they could come in, get the shot, then get back to their day.
Sunflower Rx only opened its doors at the beginning of January and is still building up its prescription volume. This gave them an advantage in keeping people socially distanced while they were getting their shots, as the pharmacy wasn’t overrun with patients coming in for regular pharmacy business. Meyer acknowledged, ″This might be harder for bigger pharmacies with larger script volume, so it’s all the more important to have good scheduling services. They will need to have some kind of centralized scheduling form for people to sign up.″
The Moderna vaccine requires two shots, which means the people who received the first shot from the pharmacy need to return in a few weeks to get a booster. The vaccination kit they received came with cards to give to all vaccine recipients, which have the date they received their first vaccine along with a spot for the date of the second shot.
Meyer is also taking advantage of his pharmacy management software, which normally reminds patients about refills, to keep track of the patients who got their first shot and need to return. ″Our computer software will remind people by text message to come in, and we will schedule them for an appointment,″ he said.
As a brand new pharmacy, being an early provider of the Covid-19 vaccine has been a boon. The financial return so far has been about the same as flu shots, around $18 a dose. Accounting for uninsured patients, Meyer estimates the true return for the Covid-19 vaccine will come out to around $16 a dose. ″For people who have insurance or Medicare Part B, we are able to bill those for an administration fee much like the flu shot,” Meyer said. ″As far as copays or charges, there’s no charge for anybody.″
But in addition to those fees per dose, being one of the first places in town to offer the vaccine has brought welcome attention to the pharmacy. ″It’s really giving us a lot more attention than we first expected, and we have gotten quite a few transfers,″ Meyer said. ″I’ve had customers from other pharmacies who didn’t realize we were here and were happy to find us.″
Getting new patients isn’t the only added benefit of the Covid vaccine. It has also created an immediate opportunity to boost retail sales because patients have to stay at the pharmacy for a while after they get the vaccine. Meyer explained, ″With other vaccines, it’s something like 10 minutes, but with these Covid vaccines, the minimum is 15 minutes, unless they have a history of allergic reactions, and then we might have them wait 30 minutes.″ While they’re waiting, patients have nothing to do except browse the pharmacy, picking up front-end items they might have otherwise left without.
Although the additional revenue and increased attention have been welcome perks, Meyer emphasizes that the true benefit of administering the Covid-19 vaccine is getting people immunized so they can return to participating in the community. He urges any pharmacies that have the opportunity to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine to jump on it. ″There are a lot more shots out there that people are just sitting on in pharmacies and hospitals and clinics,″ he said. ″They do have the vaccine and need to get it out as quickly as possible.″
This article was published in our quarterly print magazine, which covers relevant topics in greater depth featuring leading experts in the industry. Subscribe to receive the quarterly print issue in your mailbox. All registered independent pharmacies in the U.S. are eligible to receive a free subscription.
More articles from the March 2021 issue:
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