In the state of Florida, CVS and Walgreens were tapped to administer the COVID-19 vaccine across assisted living and long-term care facilities.

When they didn’t live up to their promise to vaccinate all the facilities by the end of January, those doses were returned to the state and redistributed to independent pharmacies like Prescriptions Unlimited in St. Cloud, FL. It was a classic case of ‘overpromise, underdeliver.’

Why Are Chain Pharmacies the Default Choice?

Eric Larson, pharmacist and owner of Prescriptions Unlimited, explains how his partner facilities wanted to choose his community pharmacy as their vaccine provider, but the state denied it, saying that they had to work with either CVS or Walgreens.

“So that’s why we have an influx of the Pfizer vaccine, because all of those doses went to CVS and Walgreens [who didn’t use them in time], and now we’re getting a huge dump of Pfizer back,” says Larson.

His pharmacy was then called on to help administer these doses, as they already had the infrastructure and experience needed to effectively do so.

It is commonly assumed that these large chains are the best choice because they are the only ones with the infrastructure to perform vaccinations at this scale, but that’s not always the case.

“I can make a pivot any minute I want to in my business,” says Larson. “We have the ability to put in something without going through all of the red tape.”

We’ve Done It Before and We Can Do It Again

As it continues to be proven during this pandemic, pharmacies that are prepared, have existing infrastructure, and have good relationships with their local health agencies are the pharmacies that are getting new opportunities with COVID.

Towards the beginning of the outbreak, Prescriptions Unlimited was called on by their Department of Health to perform COVID-19 testing across their county – doing 200-300 tests per day, according to Larson.

After building that relationship, he reached out to their Department of Health and made it known that they were happy to help with the COVID vaccine initiative as well. The state needed help doing at-home vaccinations for people that could not leave their homes and for their caregivers and home nurses as well.

One of the main reasons Eric Larson’s team was trusted to help with vaccination was the fact that they already had very similar programs in place.

Every year, they do mobile vaccinations and they have a contract to administer flu shots to the entire school district.

‘We went to all 60 schools in our county and gave 1300 flu shots this year. So that’s why the Department of Health knows that we have the infrastructure to do these things on-site and go to patients’ homes, and that’s…why they called us to get this thing going,” Larson says.

They currently have 2 programs running for COVID-19 vaccination: at-home and drive-through administration.

The Vaccine Dream Team

Prescriptions Unlimited gets weekly allocations of the Pfizer vaccine to use within the week.

Before reconstituting the vaccine, the vials can last about 5 days.

“On Mondays, they go to the ultra-cold freezer unit in Orange County, which is an adjacent county to us. So they grab a tray of [about] nine hundred vaccines, and that’s when the thawing period starts,” explains Larson. “By Monday afternoon, we [receive our] allotment and then we have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to utilize those vaccines.”

Their mobile COVID vaccine "dream team" consists of three pharmacists, one person in charge of billing and benefits, and another person solely dedicated to planning and facilitating their driving route.

“The Pfizer vaccine only has six hours [of viable use] after it’s mixed – which means I have six hours to get to as many houses as I can,” Larson emphasizes.

This is why they map out the most efficient route each day and stick to it, in order to vaccinate as many people as they can and not waste any doses.

Before starting the route for the day, the team prepares their vaccine cart – loading up the ancillary supplies, reconstituting the vaccine doses, getting them in the cooler, and then they’re on their way.

How to Get Your Pharmacy Noticed

Eric Larson is very involved in his community and this often leads to great opportunities for his pharmacy. It’s all about knowing the value that your pharmacy can provide and putting yourself out there.

“We’ve always been invested in our community. Even the previous owner was very entrenched in the community, so I can’t take all the credit,” begins Larson. “But when I got here, I made it my mission to make myself available to everyone.”

The pharmacy’s contract to vaccinate its entire school district is an example of the way that being a resource for your community can pay off. He came in with a competitive price that saved the school district money, and in turn brought the pharmacy a new stream of revenue as a preferred provider.

“It all starts with helping your community. All you have to do is tell them, ‘We’re here to help and go the extra mile to save you money in the long run.’ Just try to be an avenue for them and they’re going to call you,” says Larson.

He is also on the hospital readmission coalition for the county, where his pharmacy performs transitions of care for the hospitals and saves them money on readmissions.

“All of this gets noticed within your community when you’re involved in these initiatives,” he points out. “Healthcare is all about cost saving these days, right? It’s about quality and cost savings. And that’s perfect for what we do. That’s exactly what independents do.”

Larson is an advocate for putting value back into your community. It’s not sustainable to just expect your community to help you – you have to provide value first.

“I encourage other owners to get involved with these types of things, because that [connects you with organizations like] hospital systems, provider groups, home health agencies, hospices, and nursing facilities.”

By creating these working relationships, you can start to get your pharmacy noticed.

Need Some Help or Advice?

If you’re a pharmacy professional who would like to get in touch with Eric Larson with any questions or advice, he is more than happy to help.

“Please don’t hesitate. I want to be a resource. If I can help anyone not go through the pain points that I had to go through to make their program smoother, I don’t mind,” he says.

Email to get in touch with Eric.

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