“We’re definitely not the worst, there’s a lot of states out there that per capita are doing a worse job than we are, but we’re definitely not near the top either.”
Corey Heffernan is a pharmacist in the Bitterroot. He tells me the vaccine distribution has had problems from the beginning… but what has really sent him and other local pharmacists over the edge are the contracts the Federal Government has with big pharmacy chains, essentially freezing out mom and pop shops across Montana.
“We could literally be vaccinating faster than they can produce it. But instead we have it tied up and allocated and it’s just sitting there instead of getting people vaccinated.”
I immediately reached out to CVS and Walgreens to find out if this is true. CVS denies there are any extra doses, saying they’ve already completed most of what they’re signed up to do. Walgreens, however, sent me the following statement:
Regarding vaccine allotment, as facilities registered for the CDC’s Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, they provided an estimate on how many vaccines they would need. In many cases, they overestimated the number of doses needed due to fluctuations in occupancy levels and the impact of vaccine hesitancy.
Shortly before scheduled clinics, Walgreens works with each facility to verify the number of vaccines they need based on who has registered to receive a vaccination. This minimizes any excess doses from individual clinics.
In states or jurisdictions where the number of vaccines needed for the Long-Term Care Program is trending lower than what facilities initially requested, we are working with states and jurisdictions to determine how they would like to re-allocate those vaccines, which may include expanding vaccinations to additional prioritized individuals in our stores or returning the vaccine to the state to administer according to their needs. We are working hand-in-hand with states to achieve the shared goal of vaccinating our most vulnerable populations as quickly as possible.
For pharmacists like Corey, the reality of how large chains are handling the vaccines is tough not only for the patients, but for family-owned businesses across the state.
“So instead of including rural Montana, they don’t have Walgreens or CVS in Malta or Shelby… so they’re trying to hire pharmacists, they don’t have facilities there, they’re trying to get people to travel all over the state when we already have pharmacies there. It would have been so much easier to include us rather than exclude us.”
I got in touch with the Montana Department of Public Health to let them know of the situation particularly at Walgreens. Their spokesperson, Jon Ebelt, tells me their main message to providers is to not waste any vaccine, and the department will be reaching out to Walgreens. He says, “If this is the case, we will re-distribute the doses to other parts of the state.”
Just this week, a group of local pharmacies, including Corey’s, has been selected to start administering the vaccine once it’s available to the general public, but a date for when that will happen has not been set.
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