Access to pharmacy vaccination care in the era of the pandemic must continue
By Victoria E. Elliott and Rick Seipp
Together, we have sacrificed a lot to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. It is understandable that many want to move on. Yet critical work remains to be done: to act once and for all on the lessons of urgency so that our sacrifices are not in vain.
Pennsylvania lawmakers and Governor Tom Wolf currently have the opportunity to prevent the reduction of patient access to essential health and wellness services – in rural and urban areas. At the same time, they can improve health equity and strengthen preparedness for future public health crises.
Our leaders can achieve this by passing and enacting legislation (HB1535/ SB 511) that would make the federal government’s temporary approach to vaccinations during the pandemic a permanent solution here in Pennsylvania. It would give individuals and families continued access to their pharmacies for vaccines licensed or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — access that would otherwise disappear when the public health emergency officially ends.
Moreover, the enactment of this legislation would result in decisive action, without relying on waiver after waiver to overcome the obstacles and limitations of current Pennsylvania law. Patients’ access to health care should not be left to chance.
During the pandemic, Pennsylvanians have benefited from the unique access to COVID-19 vaccination and testing presented by pharmacies in grocery stores, traditional independent and chain pharmacies, as well as other retailers. Nationally, there is a pharmacy within five miles of 90% of Americans. We need to ensure that people can continue to use this safe and convenient way to get preventive health care services close to home, even after the pandemic is over.
According to federal government statistics, pharmacies provided more than two out of three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. More than 46% of COVID-19 vaccine doses for children aged 5 to 11 were administered in pharmacies. Half of pharmacy COVID-19 vaccination sites are located in areas of high social vulnerability, and 70% of pharmacy screening sites are in areas of moderate to severe social vulnerability. This means a lot for both rural and urban areas.
Pennsylvania health officials have credited pharmacies and pharmacy teams for their dedication to lights on and open houses helping 67.6% of the state’s population be fully immunized — ahead of the rate of 66% nationally. People have clearly benefited from the fact that our pharmacies have been authorized to supply life-saving vaccines at a critical time in our history. Now our legislators must ensure that this same accessibility is ready to work, without delay, in the face of any new variants or viruses. Additionally, Pennsylvania can help residents have reliable access for their routine immunization needs.
Our republic has established itself as a leader in various aspects of vaccination policy. Since 2002, adults in Pennsylvania have been able to obtain vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from pharmacies. Many states only learned of the importance of this policy after the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. Children 9 and older have been receiving flu shots from pharmacists since 2015.
Under current Pennsylvania laws, vaccinations provided by pharmacists are tied to special arrangements with physicians. These special arrangements present unnecessary obstacles. Other states – including Virginia, Florida, Georgia and Illinois – have recently come to this conclusion and passed legislation similar to that proposed in Pennsylvania.
There is reason to believe that residents of states across the country expect their leaders to maintain in place the access they have enjoyed throughout the pandemic. A Morning Consult survey, commissioned by the National Association of Chain Drugstores, found that 70% of adults support expanding the nationwide approach that gave patients better access to vaccinations at pharmacies – and 68% make it permanent.
That said, action in Harrisburg will ultimately be needed to preserve that access. Even if the federal government expands its policies further, it is unlikely to do so indefinitely.
We have all been through a lot in the past two years. We owe it to ourselves to minimize the damage of any future public health crisis and to keep ourselves as healthy as possible every day.
The pandemic has shown us once again that maintaining access to pharmacies is crucial to this end. We must learn from this lesson and act immediately, so that we can move forward with confidence.
Victoria E. Elliott, RPh, MBA, CAE, is the chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association. Vice President of Pharmacy at Weis Markets, Rick Seipp is also President of the Pennsylvania Association of Chain Drug Stores.