On March 11, one year and a day after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, President Joe Biden made a remarkable announcement: States, Tribes and territories must deem all adults eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine no later than May 1.
With some states already having advanced to this eligibility stage, Walgreens pharmacies are gearing up to expand operations. Since distribution of vaccines began in January, pharmacy teams have been hard at work hosting offsite clinics at long-term care facilities, schools, churches and more. Now, as pharmacies receive additional doses and more of the population becomes eligible, the demand for in-store appointments is expected to soar. Pharmacy teams know how to prepare for seasonal upticks in vaccine appointments, such as during annual flu season, but the anticipated numbers of patients in search of a COVID-19 vaccination will put every store’s efficiency to the test.
Stephen Fadowole, Walgreens pharmacy manager on the South Side of Chicago, shares how his team is preparing for the upcoming influx of patients.
What has the process been like so far to administer vaccines in your community?
Stephen Fadowole: We’ve been going to different offsite clinics in long-term care facilities, churches, mosques and places like the YMCA where there are eligible populations. The strategy has been to visit them, and bring access to them. However, if you keep track of the numbers, we’ve done nothing less than 1,000 vaccinations at all the churches we’ve been to. We’ve found that some patients actually make the decision to get the vaccines while we’re out there. More people are inclined to get it when they see their friends or their pastor get it. So we have been building that trust. It is an important step in getting people to come to the store down the line.
What kind of training has your team undergone since vaccines have been distributed to pharmacies?
Fadowole: It’s been busy, but the good thing is that Walgreens is prepared. Now, specially trained pharmacy technicians can give the COVID-19 vaccine. President Biden issued an executive order directing pharmacies to train technicians to give vaccines under the supervision of a pharmacist. That way, we’re positioned to handle the extra amount of appointments as states open eligibility to all adults between now and May 1. This is great, because at the end of the day, Walgreens has the same goal as President Biden: to give the vaccine to as many people as possible that are interested in receiving the vaccine.
I've also spent the last few months studying why people don't want to get the vaccine and focusing on the African-American population. So if someone on my team doesn't necessarily understand, or isn't familiar with the themes of some of the hindrances to vaccination in the Black community, I've taken the time to explain that history to them. They need to understand why people are hesitant so they can be educators.
We make sure to answer questions we get from a clinical perspective, and to make sure patients understand potential side effects. We explain to them that side effects can happen because the immune system is doing what it’s supposed to. It is important to always lead that conversation gracefully and make yourself available. We let people know we are available for a call to talk about it or invite people to come to the store for more information. In my opinion, that’s why we have gone from giving 10 to 15 vaccines a day to seeing the whole community come out to clinics in droves.
Can people come to your store now to get a vaccine?
Fadowole: Right now, appointments are limited to the elderly and frontline workers in our state. If a 90-year-old patient calls and says they don’t have a laptop or they don’t have a grandchild to help them, we can make sure they’re contacted as supply comes in. The technicians have become trained to, for example, ask questions if an elderly patient comes in to check if they are over 65 or on Medicare. And as we get the vaccines, we can call people up when there are doses to spare in addition to checking the healthcare portal where people book appointments online. We follow local jurisdiction and state guidelines as to who is eligible, and will continue to do so.
Do you expect a big turnout in the store come May 1, and how will you accommodate the influx of patients?
Fadowole: Like I said, I tell my team that it's only going to get busier, but we are excited. When we first started with in-store vaccinations, we would give 10 shots a day, and then 20 and so on. Most recently we gave out 360 doses over a period of four days.
The way appointments are scheduled now ensures we don’t have too many patients waiting in the store at one time. We’re lucky to have a good amount of space. It will take a lot of organization to maximize the space as we receive more vaccines. Of course, we will ensure that we’re still complying with the CDC guidelines of six feet of social distancing and wearing face masks. We’re envisioning all of that now, and plan to continue our safety measures now that we have a target date.
When we start having patients come in every 10 or 20 minutes, we will be sure to have a separate area for observation after the dose is administered. In addition to getting people in and out as quickly as possible, the goal is to be efficient and thorough. Plus, you will have the option to shop around the store after observation. That’s always a plus!
How do you plan on staffing up to handle every appointment?
Fadowole: We are hiring technicians to fill vacancies, and I am looking at applications every day. I've had a tremendous amount of help from my store manager, my district manager and my healthcare supervisor. They’ve made sure to bring in any extra people if needed. Shout out to Latrice Green, Reginald Jones and Patrick Allen for taking care of the employees to make sure we can give vaccines. We are in constant communication. We have to be. Especially with Latrice, my store manager. She knows how to perform in the pharmacy and on the floor. She can make sure people are distancing while I cover the clinical part. We have to work together to get everything accomplished.
How will you continue to address vaccine hesitancy?
Fadowole: It’s always helpful to discuss with people that I got the vaccine. I can give them my testimony. Very early on, I learned that one of the best ways to communicate with patients is to personalize your story. If anyone says they are scared, I am honest. I tell them that I felt the same way as you feel. But there are too many important reasons to get the vaccine, like the fact that I could see my mother, who is in her late 60s, without as much fear. My wife is also a Walgreens pharmacist, so we are both better protected from getting sick.
Hearing from people who are like them liberates their mind. You’re not doing it from a position of being the “pharmacist.” I'm Black. I get it. I tell them from my perspective. And I can see them come around and let their guard down, and they become receptive to some of the ideas that I have. Nine out of 10 times, when you get into a conversation with some of these people, you end up helping them see the importance of getting the vaccine. Hesitancy is down compared to when vaccines were first authorized, which is great.
How many vaccines do you think you’ll be able to administer in a day?
Fadowole: A pharmacist, if paced properly, can give about 10 vaccines in an hour. Of course, it can be time-consuming to check people in, but if we’re talking about shots in arms, and if we have all our pharmacy technicians available, we could theoretically do about 15 people in an hour. If I have three pharmacists on staff, that’s 45 people in an hour. We are a 24-hour store, so I joke that we never stop. Of course, we won’t be giving vaccines at 2 in the morning. But you know what? I’d be open to that. Drastic times call for drastic measures. Walgreens is excited to match the President’s level of urgency. Once our state gives us the green light, we’re ready go above and beyond to help vaccinate the country.