The Biden administration announced Tuesday it will begin direct shipments of coronavirus vaccines to retail pharmacies next week, expanding points of access for Americans to receive shots as concerns about variants of the virus expand.
“Millions of Americans turn to their local pharmacies every day for their medicines, flu shots, and much more. And pharmacies are readily accessible in most communities, with most Americans living within five miles of a pharmacy,” White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said in a briefing.
The program, which will begin rolling out February 11, will start at about 6,500 stores that will receive a total of 1 million doses before eventually expanding, Zients said.
The administration also announced it is increasing the weekly allocation of vaccines going to states, tribes and territories by an additional 5%, bringing the weekly total of vaccines purchased per week a minimum of 10.5 million.
And Zients said the Federal Emergency Management Agency would fully reimburse states for the eligible services they have provided since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020. The reimbursements will encompass personal protective equipment and the mobilization of the National Guard, Zients said, estimating the price tag will be between $3-5 billion.
In his briefing, Zients sought to manage expectations for the pharmacy rollout. He said both vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna are stepping up production to provide the extra doses.
“In the early phase, many pharmacies across the country will not have vaccine, or may have very limited supply,” he said.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with states to select pharmacy sites, which will take into account “their ability to reach some of the populations most at risk for severe illness from Covid-19, including socially vulnerable communities,” Zients said.
Administration officials briefed representatives from major pharmacy chains on Tuesday before announcing the plan publicly.
The White House listed 21 national pharmacy chains that will participate in the initial phase of the program, including Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid.
The plan to expand vaccine availability in pharmacies has long been in the works and was a key component in the former Trump administration’s distribution plan as well. In some states, such as Maryland, those plans are underway, and pharmacies have already begun distributing vaccines.
Public health experts have said it’s critical to expand locations Americans can visit to get vaccinated, both to streamline distribution efforts but also to ensure the vaccine is available to a wider swath of the public as vaccine disparities emerge.
Adding new locations for vaccinations will only alleviate part of the problem, though. Vaccine supply remains extremely limited and the additional locations are likely to come as states are still clamoring for more doses.
Just last month, the new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told NBC News that the early expansion to pharmacies wouldn’t mean every pharmacy, everywhere.
“I don’t think late February we’re going to have vaccine in every pharmacy in this country,” Walensky said.