Aug 31, 2020 - Health

Pharmacies, not the military, will handle COVID-19 vaccinations

Illustration of a large golden caduceus beside a tiny stone caduceus
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Although President Trump has said the military is “all mobilized” to help distribute a coronavirus vaccine, in the end that process will almost certainly rely heavily on the pharmacies, doctors and community hospitals we’re all familiar with.

The big picture: Deciding how to distribute a vaccine is, for now, a government-driven task, and Trump has invoked the logistical expertise of the military as a way to do the job. For the public, though, this won’t feel like a military exercise, with heavy trucks rolling into town and people lining up outside medical tents. It’ll feel like going to CVS.

Where it stands: Government officials have given conflicting accounts of who will be distributing a vaccine, once there is one.

  • Trump has said several times that the military would be part of the process, but McClatchy reported last month that no such preparations are under way and that the Pentagon is unlikely to be involved. Politico then reported that the Pentagon would be providing some logistical support, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control.

These are all behind-the-scenes logistics for allocating the available doses of an eventual vaccine. When the time comes for individual patients to get vaccinated, the process will seem far more mundane.

Details:  The leading vaccine candidates all need to be stored at sub-zero temperatures until they’re administered — something major pharmaceutical distributors and pharmacy chains are already equipped to do.

  • Most of the leading candidates require two shots. Keeping track of who’s been vaccinated and who’s due for their second dose is work that pharmacies, doctors and hospitals are used to.
  • So is navigating insurance coverage and payment.
  • There will also be waves of earlier and later vaccines to keep track of.
  • The vaccines are also expected to have side effects such as fever and chills that mimic virus symptoms, so it’ll be important for patients to get a consultation ahead of time and to be able to consult their providers if they need to.

What’s next: There will not be enough supply to vaccinate more than a small share of the U.S. population once distribution begins. High-level decisions about how to allocate the available doses will be wrenching and could be politically explosive. 

  • But, while it falls to government institutions to make those decisions, it will likely be your local pharmacy or community hospital that will carry them out.
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