Pharmacists are hot commodity as U.S. ramps up COVID-19 vaccine rollout
The urgent need to administer COVID-19 vaccines across the U.S. is stoking demand for another suddenly hot commodity: pharmacists.
The federal government this week began shipping vaccines to drugstores around the country as part of an effort to jump-start immunizations.
As a result, pharmacies are adding pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and other support staff to deal with patients, manage vaccine supplies and give shots.
Some employers are even offering five-figure sign-on bonuses for pharmacy students even before they complete their studies.
“Over the last five to six years, the market was saturated with pharmacists and good job opportunities were few,” said Micheal Hogue, dean of the Loma Linda University School of Pharmacy. “Today, I'm very aware of regional and national chains that are hiring pharmacy students and pharmacists as rapidly as they can to meet the demands of the COVID vaccination efforts.”
Scott Knoer, CEO of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), also pointed to the surging job opportunities for pharmacy students.
“It used to be kind of hard to get a job in pharmacy. Now, it's changed because of COVID, and pharmacists are literally saving the world through vaccination,” he told CBS MoneyWatch.
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Pharmacy job listings are up 35% compared to a year ago, with major chains and independent pharmacies a ramping up hiring as Americans scramble to secure appointments. CVS Health, the country's largest pharmacy chain with 10,000 stores across the U.S., in October announced it would fill 15,000 new jobs, including 10,000 pharmacy technician positions, to help respond to the pandemic.
Walgreens, the second-largest U.S. pharmacy chain, with more than 9,000 retail locations, is also hiring fast. It has filled 7,500 of 9,000 newly created pharmacy roles to help with COVID-19 testing and vaccine shots.
It is also training existing staff to administer the vaccine, and aims to have trained 45,000 team members, including 30,000 pharmacists and 15,000 pharmacy techs by mid-February, said Rina Shah, vice president of Walgreens pharmacy operations, in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.
The chain is also hiring an additional 25,000 staffers who are vital in supporting pharmacists and technicians.
New rule is a “game-changer”
A flier distributed by CVS Health indicates the company is also offering “Hero Pay” to pharmacy teams administering the COVID-19 vaccine. A spokesperson for the company said it would continue to hire staff to meet demand as the pandemic persists.
Most pharmacists are trained and licensed to give immunizations once they earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree. But a rule change issued by the Trump administration in October also allows pharmacy techs, who don't require a Pharm.D. degree, to complete a training course to administer COVID-19 vaccines under the guidance of a fully licensed pharmacist.
The change allows pharmacists to delegate the task of giving a shot to a technician, freeing them up to perform other tasks. Pharmacists remain responsible for verifying that the vaccine is appropriate for the patient and that it's drawn up correctly.
“In the pharmacy workflow, immunizations are such a bottleneck at times because as a pharmacist you have to step everything you're doing to do give the patient a shot.
To have a technician do this is a game-changer in pharmacy practice,” said Kim McKeirnan, associate professor of Pharmacotherapy at Washington State University College of Pharmacy and the author of the school's pharmacy technician training program.
Beginning in December, Washington State University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences began receiving an influx of requests for pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to help with COVID-19 vaccinations, according to Linda Garrelts MacLean, vice dean of external relations for the Washington State University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
An internal job board features a flier from Walgreens advertising sign-on bonuses of up to $10,000 for pharmacists and $500 for technicians. Other chains are offering up to $20,000, a pharmacy school administrator said.
Walgreens is offering up to $10,000 in signing bonuses for pharmacists, as it seeks professionals who are qualified to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. Courtesy of WSU College of Pharmacy
Breanna Byrne, a fourth-year student at WSU's pharmacy school, is positive about her job prospects. She has already completed the coursework that allows her to administer the COVID-19 vaccine, and works at Fred Meyer pharmacy on weekends, where she earns $23 an hour as an intern.
“They offered me an intern position to help with the flu season and now that is carrying forward into vaccinating for COVID,” Byrne told CBS MoneyWatch.
Her fiance, Jeff Gist, also a fourth-year student at WSU, recently landed an internship at Walgreens to help with vaccinations. “They said once I graduate in May, it will turn into a full-time position. I'm sure we'll be administering plenty of vaccinations,” he said.
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The pandemic is highlighting pharmacists' wide-ranging skills, putting them on the front lines against COVID-19.
“Pharmacy as a profession has been working very diligently to make sure their value is understood and this particular situation simply highlights the value the pharmacist brings in the community and on the team,” said Garrelts MacLean of WSU.
Industry professionals say pharmacists are ready for what is an unprecedented public health challenge.
“This is pharmacists' 9/11. In the beginning, we didn't have any protection: No PPE, no masks, no plexiglass. Pharmacists went to work, they served their community and they're doing it now. Usually pharmacists are in the background, but now we're right up there,” Knoer said.
CVS, Walgreens now offering COVID-19 vaccines. What you need to know
The Biden administration is boosting purchases of coronavirus vaccines to deliver enough to protect 300 million Americans by the end of the summer. Associated Press
UPDATE: This story was first published on Feb. 9. CVS announced it will expand the COVID vaccine to six more states starting Feb. 25. Also, the company said it plans to contact Americans living in underserved communities to help them schedule vaccine appointments.
You may now be able to get a vaccine from your local pharmacy.
After weeks of vaccine distribution being largely limited to hospitals, health systems and local health departments, COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out at major pharmacies throughout the country, including the nation's two largest chains, CVS and Walgreens.
While state-determined eligibility and availability will remain limited for the time being, experts say they're hopeful that the nation's established network of pharmacies will help speed up distribution amid consternation over the pace of the rollout so far.
“I have no doubt” that it will, said Bunny Ellerin, director of the Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Management Program at Columbia Business School.
She said that the major pharmacy chains are especially well-suited to handle the distribution campaign because they manage flu vaccinations for millions of Americans annually, giving them expertise that pop-up sites might lack.
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Florida Presbyterian Homes CEO Joe Xanthopoulos, dressed as Santa, receives a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccination from Walgreens Pharmacist Ericka Gutierrez at the Florida Presbyterian Homes in Lakeland, Florida, on Tuesday, Dec. 22. (Ernst Peters/The Ledger) (Photo: Ernst Peters/The Ledger)
Throughout the country, vaccine eligibility is still limited to certain portions of the population and is determined by state health officials recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While it varies from state to state, eligibility generally currently includes certain older Americans and essential workers. Those eligibility restrictions will continue to apply to the pharmacy chains until states expand access, which is currently limited in large part due to an insufficient supply of vaccines.
President Joe Biden virtually toured Arizona's State Farm Stadium vaccination site, thanking front line workers distributing the COVID vaccine. The administration has deployed FEMA staff and National Guard members to help get people vaccinated. (Feb. AP Domestic
The rollout is taking place after the Biden administration activated the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program as part of the coronavirus vaccine effort, enabling distribution to retail locations throughout the country.
In this initial phase, the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have selected certain pharmacy chains to focus on specific areas of the country.
Which states will offer CVS vaccinations?
At CVS, which has nearly 10,000 locations, including pharmacies inside Target stores, vaccination appointments could be scheduled beginning Thursday, Feb. 11 for about 350 stores across 11 states: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Appointments will begin Friday, Feb. 12.
Appointments will be required. They can be set up at CVS.com or through the CVS Pharmacy app. Anyone without internet access can call (800) 746-7287.
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CVS is asking anyone interested in a vaccination appointment not to contact individual stores.
“Because active stores will change regularly vaccine supply, CVS Health will not provide a full list of participating locations,” CVS said.
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Which states will offer Walgreens vaccinations?
At Walgreens, which has more than 9,000 pharmacies, vaccinations will be provided at certain stores in 17 states and jurisdictions beginning Friday, Feb. 12.
Those include locations in Arizona, Chicago, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, New York City, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, U.S.
Virgin Islands, Vermont, Wisconsin and West Virginia.
Appointments can be made at Walgreens.com/ScheduleVaccine. Eligible people can call their local pharmacy but wait times could be significant. Initial locations with available vaccines were chosen by the government to focus primarily on medically underserved areas, Walgreens spokesperson Rebekah Pajak said.
Walgreens has also announced that it's partnering with Uber to provide free or discounted rides to vaccination appointments for up to 10 million Americans. Access to ride appointments will be provided when the vaccination is scheduled. The company is not providing walk-in appointments for now as it does during flu shot season.
Other pharmacies chosen to deliver vaccines at certain locations include Walmart, Rite Aid, Kroger, Publix, Costco, Albertsons, Safeway and Meijer.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on @NathanBomey.
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