By Jaewon Kang and Sharon Terlep
Federal and state officials are tapping regional and supermarket-based pharmacies to help speed up administration of Covid-19 vaccines amid a slower-than-planned rollout.
Rite Aid Corp., Kroger Co., Stop & Shop Supermarket LLC and other retailers are being asked to step in and provide inoculations to front-line workers and other vulnerable people. While the timeline is weeks earlier than planned, companies say they hope to test and troubleshoot protocols before distributing vaccines to the masses.
"We're getting calls just because of the need," said Colleen Lindholz, president of Kroger's health-care business. Officials from South Carolina and Georgia reached out to Kroger this week, and the company has been providing shots to health-care professionals in its stores and sending staff to long-term facilities in Alaska, West Virginia, Texas and Arkansas.
The executives of Kroger and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., two of the biggest retailers involved in the vaccine effort, expressed frustration over what they said was a slower-than-necessary rollout because of holdups at the state and federal levels.
Kroger is also exploring ways to hold large events in community centers and stadiums that would allow it to vaccinate 600 to 800 people at a time, Ms. Lindholz said. She added that the nation's biggest grocer could immunize a tremendous number of people if it had more access to inoculations.
More than 17 million doses of vaccines from Moderna Inc. and the Pfizer Inc.- BioNTech SE partnership have been shipped, and roughly 5.3 million had been administered as of Thursday morning, according to federal figures.
Part of the shortfall is because of a lag in reporting data. But the rollout also is encountering speed bumps, from confusion at the state level around how doses get distributed to hesitancy on the part of people who qualify for the vaccine in this first round.
The U.S. is in the first stage of a three-phase vaccine administration plan that starts with health-care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens, the nation's largest drugstore chains, are leading the efforts to vaccinate staff and residents at roughly 50,000 long-term-care facilities.
On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said a federal partnership with 19 pharmacy chains and associations to administer the vaccine at 40,000 sites would start this week, earlier than planned. States will determine when those vaccinations will begin. Mr. Azar blamed the holiday season for the slow pace of vaccinations, and said reporting delays cause the total number of vaccinations to trail the total number of distributed doses by a wide margin.
Many retailers were expected to start immunizing people during the next phase and had been preparing by hiring pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, securing medical gear and adding scheduling services. Offering vaccinations has been a way for retailers to bring in more customers.
But health officials are seeking their help earlier than planned as the initial rollout lags behind the federal government's goal of vaccinating 20 million people by the end of 2020.
Walgreens Chief Executive Stefano Pessina said the chain, with 9,000 U.S. pharmacies, has the capability to do much more than it currently is.
"But we are just an agent for the states," Mr. Pessina said in an interview. "We are vaccinating at a pace that is a fraction of the pace that we could be doing. We could do much more as a pharmacy chain if we had a certain degree of freedom."
Kroger's Ms. Lindholz also said the grocer is only getting a small part of what it has the ability to handle. The Cincinnati-based company has given about 4,500 doses of Covid-19 vaccinations. On average, Kroger provides roughly 200,000 doses of the flu vaccine each week during flu season.
Inconsistency among state guidelines is causing a slowdown, she said, adding that she hopes the federal and state governments can come together to create a more uniform plan.
"There's ample supply," Ms. Lindholz said.
Charlie Hartig, CEO at Hartig Drug Stores, said the retailer has given 100 doses to health-care workers and caregivers since last week in three of its roughly 20 stores. While the retailer could be offering more, it wants to follow guidelines strictly, Mr. Hartig said.
"It's been a hurry-up-and-wait game," he said.
For other pharmacies, state-level requests began pouring in this week. Stop & Shop, owned by Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize NV, is communicating with Massachusetts and other states to learn how its pharmacies can help sooner, said Katie Thornell, director of pharmacy operations at Stop & Shop. She said she sees opportunities in vaccinating adults ages 75 and up given the grocer's network of pharmacy locations in the Northeast, adding that the administration will likely happen within stores.
Tops Markets LLC had a call with New York state officials on Monday about potentially helping vaccinate nursing-home residents and health-care workers, said Matthew Hamed, the company's director of pharmacy.
The retailer is double-checking its vaccine procedures and submitting plans to show how many people it can inoculate and which locations are ready.
Rite Aid, the third-largest U.S. pharmacy chain, said a mounting number of states and other jurisdictions are reaching out to ask for help with administration. The chain has recently given shots to health-care workers in New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York City and Delaware.
Other pharmacies are thinking of ways to speed up the timeline and immunize more people. Vic Vercammen, chief pandemic officer at Giant Eagle Inc., said the retailer is discussing with various states how to repurpose underused spaces such as county fairgrounds and courthouses to set up clinics. Giant Eagle has provided vaccinations in nursing homes and long-term care facilities in West Virginia and is working with Ohio officials to expand immunization efforts.
"We're not newly deputized, but as various authorities look at the population and see where qualified immunizers are, we're well positioned to help where we can," he said.
--Jared S. Hopkins contributed to this article.
Write to Jaewon Kang at email@example.com and Sharon Terlep at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires