The Vaccine Handoff

With the government criticized for a bumpy vaccine rollout, retailers will now step in to give the shots. Can they do a better job?

Kae Robertson walked into a western New York facility to get her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. An assistant looked up her insurance information, and a medical professional injected her. The whole process was routine with one exception: it wasn’t a government agency administering the shot, it was Walgreens.

After months of trying to run the massive task of providing vaccines to the population, the US government is now giving more than 20 major pharmacies and retailers the chance to step in and partner with the effort. That puts outfits from Walmart to Walgreens to CVS in the position of trying to improve on a program that so far hasn’t lived up to the expectations of an anxious public; total vaccinations are millions behind what many had hoped for by this point.

Thanks to the shift, the stores could collectively give tens of millions of shots each month at nearly 20,000 outlets across the country. Experts say it’s a bold bet by the firms’ leaders that their stores can handle one of the most important public health tasks in decades. For her part, Robertson, a former chief nursing officer and now a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Healthcare practice, says that with their ubiquitous locations, these chains should have a better chance of reaching rural residents and city dwellers who can’t get to the large, government-run vaccination sites. “It could be uplifting for both the stores and people,” she says.

But the effort is not without its risks. Many facilities may need additional cold storage units, as the current crop of COVID vaccines can’t last for very long at room temperature. The companies also will need to ensure that patients can make appointments online. (One chain had a software glitch in its scheduling system on the first day but corrected it quickly.) The stores are also being put into the awkward position of policing their potential customers, ensuring that only people who have qualified under government guidelines get vaccinated while turning others away. Some chains are asking patients to show their Medicare cards as proof that they are age qualified.

But experts say the firms’ primary challenge will be ensuring that the actual vaccination process doesn’t interfere with normal business. “Someone has to handle people coming in late or early for their appointments and create a positive customer relationship without clogging up the door,” says Craig Rowley, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in retail.

During normal times, many stores have only one pharmacist on duty along with either a sales clerk or a pharmacy assistant. The store employees will have to keep customers socially distant, help with any paperwork, and monitor people for any initial side effects after they get the shot. The stores’ other customers may not be patient with the process. “It’s not like the pharmacists are sitting around with nothing to do,” because they will be tied up with vaccination duty, Robertson says. Much like a retailer around the holiday season, these chains may hire temporary help to handle the increased traffic. For example, Walgreens has said it plans to hire about 25,000 people across the United States to administer the vaccines.

Difficulties aside, experts say that if the stores can handle the vaccination process well, it could significantly enhance their reputation with existing customers and attract new ones. Pharmacies have years of experience giving flu shots to customers, and some large pharmacy chains have already tried to position themselves as providers of primary healthcare services by installing mini-clinics in their stores. Providing a COVID shot is a natural extension of that strategy. There’s also the potential bonus of added foot traffic. Though vaccines, and prescriptions in general, aren’t huge moneymakers for pharmacy retailers, each person who goes into a store for vaccination also has a chance to buy other, higher-margined goods, Rowley says. “Rarely do you go into the store and buy only the one thing you really need.”