SOUTHEASTERN N.C. – Running parallel to the Raleigh-based vaccination effort, helmed by state health officials who allocate vaccine shipments to North Carolina’s 100 counties, a federal program has been supplying national pharmacy brands with Covid-19 vaccine doses since early February.
The partnership was first inked last year. CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens were deployed to provide doses to long-term care facilities, like nursing homes, that desired the companies’ services.
In New Hanover County, just over half of the long-term care facilities received vaccinations from the companies, while the rest were served by the local health department.
As supply geared up in recent weeks, the relationship between the federal government and the companies expanded; Walgreens, Walmart and CVS now have approvals to offer the vaccine at select locations in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
The Federal Retail Pharmacy Program makes use of these brands’ reputations as well-known providers of the influenza vaccine on an annual basis, in a bid to decrease vaccine hesitancy and expand the options for procuring a shot.
“Participating pharmacies will bill private and public insurance for the vaccine administration fee,” according to the CDC website. “No one will receive a bill for a COVID-19 vaccine.”
In a news conference, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said the federal pharmacy program is the largest non-state run source of vaccine supply. Walgreens administered 3 million doses by Feb. 19. A week later the company’s national allocation increased to more than 480,000 doses per week — higher than the total number of doses handed to the state of North Carolina this week.
Locally, nine Walgreens participate in the retail vaccination program — one in Carolina Beach and eight in Wilmington — which typically involves receipt of 100 doses per week.
New Hanover County Interim Health Director David Howard emailed multiple N.C. Department of Health and Human Services officials two weeks ago “to escalate a recurring circumstance we’re hearing from residents concerning both the Walgreens [long-term care facility] program and Walgreens retail vaccination program.”
Howard said the health department received calls from long-term care facility residents, who said Walgreens did not offer them a second dose shot, “given the program is ending.”
The initial deal between pharmacies and long-term care facilities involved three visits to participating institutions, spaced apart to accommodate the required time between shots. It is now on its tail end locally, according to a Walgreens pharmacist in Wilmington, who asked to remain anonymous due to a company policy that prevents speaking to the press.
“Also, we’ve received reports from residents who received a first dose at a retail Walgreens, but were not assured of a 2nd dose being available,” Howard wrote to NCDHHS.
A Walgreens corporate spokesperson said eligible individuals can make appointments for both first and second doses at once by visiting the Walgreens website.
“We are committed to honoring all appointments and providing second doses to all patients, regardless of where their first dose was administered,” the spokesperson said. “For those patients who received their first dose with Walgreens, if they haven’t received their second dose, we will be reaching out to ensure that they have scheduled an appointment and are vaccinated.”
Employees at four Wilmington Walgreens locations offered insights into the scheduling system. One employee said every individual scheduled for a vaccination would be served with a second shot at the same location. An employee at a different location said, while two appointments are always booked for vaccination requests, it is possible for the two appointments to be scheduled at different locations.
The Walgreens pharmacist said some individuals are given doses because the original intended recipient was a no-show. In these cases, the priority is putting shots in arms rather than throwing away the product. People receiving these surprise doses are told they need to independently schedule a second dose appointment elsewhere, the pharmacist said.
“Today we have a report from a resident that received a first dose from a retail Walgreens that was considered an ‘extra dose’ at the end of the day,” Howard wrote to NCDHHS officials. “But the resident was told they’d have to seek a 2nd dose at the health department given the first dose was an extra dose, and Walgreens would not necessarily have a 2nd dose supplied to administer to them.”
A fourth Walgreens employee said the online portal always schedules both appointments — one for each shot — but vaccine-seekers who phoned into the Walgreens sometimes only got one visit scheduled.
Pender County Health Director Carolyn Moser said there have not been reports there of scheduling difficulties in Walgreens clinics.
“I understand if someone is vaccinated at one of those clinics, they may not receive a return appointment for their second dose,” she wrote in an email. “But I do not know for certain.”
Moser added that county health staff had been called upon to vaccinate new residents of long-term care facilities in need of a shot.
A New Hanover County spokesperson said state officials responded to Howard, confirming that Walgreens would handle the cases of affected individuals. With the long-term care program winding down, all LTC facilities “needing vaccination services going forward are being assisted by state staff.”
“Where necessary, NHC Public Health is here to serve LTC staff and residents who are not able to establish such a connection with a pharmacy provider,” the New Hanover spokesperson said in an email.
Wednesday evening, a spokesperson for NCDHHS said the federal program is designed to deliver second dose shots to the same location as the first dose, either two or three weeks later.
“With Walgreens, if a person receives a first dose that is leftover at the end of the day, they are permitted to schedule a second dose appointment up to three days in advance of the second dose, but no more than three days ahead to ensure that Walgreens has vaccine available for them,” the NCDHHS spokesperson wrote in an email.
NCDHHS made contact with Walgreens to discuss claims of scheduling difficulties, according to the NCDHHS spokesperson.
The New Hanover County spokesperson added that issues associated with the Walgreens programs appear to be few and far between.
“We believe any incidents with the federal pharmacy program to vaccinate residents of long-term care facilities are isolated and are very few as the Walgreens organization acclimates to the vaccination processes.”
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