Federal plans to administer vaccines through retail pharmacies launched on Thursday. But the rollout is limited; only 6,500 stores will receive a million doses a week to start.



AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A limited number of people started getting vaccinated against COVID-19 at retail pharmacies today. The federal government shipped doses directly to 6,500 stores. Initially, the shipment is a million doses a week, but customers are already clamoring for more and have lots of questions. Joining us to talk about this is NPR health correspondent Yuki Noguchi. Welcome back.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: So is it safe to say that there is a huge amount of consumer interest, but what are some of the biggest concerns?

NOGUCHI: Yeah, tons of interest. And the concern is not nearly enough appointments. That million doses a week works out to about 150 doses per store, and right now only a tenth of the country’s pharmacies are getting these doses. You know, we posted a questionnaire about vaccinations and got more than 500 responses. One of them was from a 72-year-old man in Lockport, N.Y., who doesn’t have transportation. You know, he’s pretty representative. He worries it’ll be late summer before he can get booked at a pharmacy nearby.

CORNISH: What have you learned about the best way to get one of these shots?

NOGUCHI: Well, the first thing to do is to make sure you’re eligible according to your local rules. You know, don’t bother checking your local pharmacy for appointments until then. And then, Kathleen Jaeger says, be patient. She’s with the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.

KATHLEEN JAEGER: Phones are ringing off the hook. People are coming in, and they’re asking all the same questions. And right now I get to keep expectations in line.

CORNISH: OK, she just said that people are calling and coming in, but isn’t there a waitlist for appointments?

NOGUCHI: No, and that’s frustrating to many consumers. Walgreens told me they’re working on one, but it’s not live. So the next best thing are these alerts that many county or pharmacy websites have set up. These notify people when they’re eligible. But that’s not the same as booking an actual appointment. And, again, the hunt for those is fierce. One woman in Rockville, Md., says her dad got an alert, so they tried for appointments online. Systems crashed. Spots ran out, wasted hours. And she compares it now to winning the lottery. Some are getting creative. In fact, one woman outside Chicago wrote her own computer code to mine data about local supply and then got an appointment that way.

CORNISH: That is exciting for her. But for the rest of us who don’t know how to code, what are we looking at?

NOGUCHI: Yeah, right. Dennise Davis asked a question that I heard from lots of people.

DENNISE DAVIS: How can they make it easier for people who aren’t computer-savvy?

NOGUCHI: And she lives in a tiny town outside Yosemite National Park…

DAVIS: Beyond where they deliver mail, they don’t plow our roads.

NOGUCHI: …You know, far from mass vaccination events and Internet access in some cases. So some church groups and health departments and nonprofits are – that help the elderly are taking calls to help people who can’t book online, but the phone systems at pharmacies are swamped. And Walgreens says it’s working on a phone booking system as well, but that’s not yet available. You know, one thing is that independent pharmacies might do things differently, especially in rural areas, like where Davis lives. Kurt Proctor says many of them are reaching out to patients directly. Proctor’s an executive at the National Community Pharmacists Association.

KURT PROCTOR: Sometimes they’re saying, I’ll come out to your house, because, you know, they’re so ingrained in their community and know their patient population so well.

NOGUCHI: And, you know, that also makes it easier to identify who’s eligible.

CORNISH: We have been doing some reporting on people jumping the line, so to speak. Will pharmacies be checking ID?

NOGUCHI: Yeah. There’s no federal requirement for pharmacies to do that, but many will be checking IDs. However, things like your job might be harder to confirm. So, you know, still a lot of the system will depend on people being honest.

CORNISH: That’s NPR’s Yuki Noguchi. Thank you so much.

NOGUCHI: Thank you, Audie.

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