by Tasha Polster
Vice president of pharmacy quality, compliance and patient safety, Walgreens
20 August 2020
COVID-19 is likely to intensify the demand for flu vaccines this season. But as H1N1 in 2009 showed, when crisis hits, Walgreens is at its best.
 


This week, Walgreens announced flu shots were available at our pharmacies around the country. The start of flu season is always a busy time for us, but this year we’re gearing up for what may be an unprecedented demand for flu shots, with this upcoming flu season coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

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 Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and others asked for help, we answered the call. By the time the H1N1 vaccine became commercially available, Walgreens had quickly taken steps to expand availability to become the first pharmacy in the U.S. offering flu shots at every pharmacy, every day, with no appointment necessary.  This was no easy feat, as we didn’t have nearly the number of pharmacists who were authorized to administer flu shots as the 27,000 we do today. 

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. 

Our experience in 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 season, with heightened consumer awareness because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 60 percent or more may get their flu shot, by some projections. 

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 may be just the beginning, serving as a dry run of sorts for when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available.  When it does, Walgreens pharmacies will continue be a trusted, go-to resource in communities throughout the U.S.

The pandemic has underscored the value and importance of pharmacies in supporting the health and well-being of communities – and in being accessible during times like these, when our customers and patients need us most, to help our country get healthy again.  

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.