by Tasha Polster
Vice president of pharmacy quality, compliance and patient safety, Walgreens
02 November 2020
As H1N1 in 2009 showed, when crisis hits, Walgreens is at its best.


 
With concerns over a ‘twindemic’ of COVID-19 and flu this fall, we’ve experienced nearly unprecedented demand for flu shots this season. Coupled with daily updates on potential COVID-19 vaccines, it’s unusual to have a day where immunizations aren’t top of mind – especially for our pharmacists. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced that Walgreens and Pharmerica will work alongside HHS, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Administration as part of Operation Warp Speed to help administer COVID-19 vaccines, once available, to high priority groups, including long-term care facility residents and staff.

This isn’t the first time we’ve been in the position to play a critical role during a pandemic. Looking back, it was the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009 that put community pharmacy on the map in terms of immunizations and paved the way for pharmacists to administer not just flu shots, but a wide range of other vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

That season, because of the timing of when H1N1 became a threat to the U.S., a separate vaccine had to be manufactured on a tight timeframe, and it meant a second flu shot, in addition to the standard seasonal flu vaccine, would be needed to protect people from H1N1.

The H1N1 vaccine became available in October of that year, and the challenge for government and health officials nationwide was how to get it to as many points of care as possible, as quickly as possible, and administered to as much of the population as possible, while H1N1 threats were growing.
Tasha Polster

 


And that’s where we came in. With thousands of locations across the U.S., community pharmacies, including Walgreens, were well positioned to meet the need and the demand.

Our flu and immunizations program was still in its infancy stages in 2009, with only about 8,000 Walgreens pharmacists licensed or certified to administer flu shots.  Additionally, flu shots were only offered at some Walgreens locations, and only during certain hours of the day. Of all flu shots administered in the U.S. before H1N1, the percentage provided at a pharmacy or other retail location was in the single digits. 

But when the government, HHS, the CDC and others asked for help, we answered the call.  By the time the H1N1 vaccine became commercially available, Walgreens quickly took steps to expand availability to become the first pharmacy in the U.S. offering flu shots at every store, every day, with no appointment necessary.  This was no easy feat, as we didn’t have nearly the number of pharmacists who could administer flu shots as we do today, among other operational challenges. 

The H1N1 pandemic became a turning point for the industry and the profession, and a roadmap of sorts for mass vaccination efforts.  Within two years, we more than tripled the number of pharmacists trained and certified to administer flu shots, and soon after, every Walgreens pharmacist became certified. Government agencies, health officials and even other providers began to recognize the critical role pharmacies could play in helping to improve convenience, access to vaccines and immunization rates. 

Today, nearly one-third of all flu shots in the U.S. are administered in a pharmacy or retail setting and millions every season are administered by Walgreens pharmacists. In fact, since 2010, we’ve administered more than 60 million flu shots. Our pharmacists can now administer 17 vaccines in all, from flu and pneumonia to shingles, meningitis, hepatitis and even travel vaccines, depending on state restrictions. 

Today, nearly one-third of all flu shots in the U.S. are administered in a pharmacy or retail setting and millions, every season, are administered by Walgreens pharmacists. In fact, since 2010, we’ve administered more than 60 million flu shots. Our pharmacists can now administer 17 vaccines, ranging from flu and pneumonia, to shingles, meningitis, hepatitis and even travel vaccines, depending on state restrictions. 

Our experience handling high volumes of vaccinations is always an asset, but this year, it matters more than ever. On average, about 45 percent of Americans get a flu shot each year.  This upcoming season, with heightened consumer awareness due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some projections are that 60 percent or more may get their flu shot. 

As a company, we’ve taken a number of steps to help ensure we can meet patient demand throughout the season, but it won’t end with flu shots.  This is just the beginning, serving as a dry run of sorts for when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, at which point we’ll be ready to support vaccination efforts in any way possible.  That includes our work with HHS to help deliver vaccines, once approved, to our most vulnerable populations.

The pandemic has underscored the value and importance of pharmacies in supporting the health and wellbeing of communities, and it’s our responsibility to be there at times like these, when our customers and patients need us most, to help our country get healthy again.
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How could Walgreens pharmacists play a key role in fighting COVID-19 this flu season and beyond? Alex Gourlay, co-chief operating officer, WBA, explains in this video interview with Fortune.