Health and Wellness

When Covid vaccines could be available at chain pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens

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On Thursday, the federal government will begin shipping 1 million doses of Covid vaccines directly to retail pharmacies across the country as part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, the Biden administration's Covid-19 response team announced.

That sounds like good news, and the idea is that eligible people should be able to make an appointment at a participating pharmacy to get the shots, particularly in "harder to reach" areas, White House Covid response coordinator Jeff Zients said during a press conference Feb. 2.

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However, while the step adds some access points for people to get vaccinated, "this may help" but "it is not a single solution," says Brian Castrucci, epidemiologist and president and chief executive officer of the de Beaumont Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropy focused solely on state and local public health.

Here's what you need to know about getting the vaccine at pharmacies.

Which pharmacies will offer the Covid vaccine?

The initial rollout will include 6,500 pharmacies and grocery stores. The plan is to eventually expand to 40,000 pharmacies across the country as supply grows, but a timeline is unclear.

The major chains that will offer vaccines include Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy, Rite Aid, as well as Walmart, Costco, Kroger and Publix. The CDC has the full list of pharmacies and grocery stores.

CVS will be offering vaccines in 11 states beginning Thursday: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York (excluding New York City), Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. 

Walgreens will start the program on Feb. 12 in 15 states and jurisdictions: Chicago, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, New York City, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Vermont, Wisconsin and West Virginia, the company said. 

However, at first, many pharmacies may not have vaccines or may only have very limited supply, according to the CDC.

The CDC selected pharmacies based on the population served and community reached, capability of storing vaccines, ability to meet data reporting requirements and capacity to vaccinate. The CDC is working with participating pharmacy companies to ensure they reach "socially vulnerable areas," Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the White House's Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force, said Tuesday.

Uber announced Tuesday that it will offer free rides to Walgreens stores and clinics for people in underserved communities who have to get to a vaccine appointment.

How do you get the Covid vaccine at a pharmacy?

Thus far, scheduling an appointment online to get the vaccine through state and local health departments has been confusing and difficult to navigate.

According to Castrucci, one of the challenges with getting a vaccine appointment is that local public health systems, hospitals and pharmacies distributing the vaccines are not communicating with each other about the doses available. "No one is talking to anybody," he says.

As of now, those seeking vaccines will still need to make an appointment online through the pharmacy's website.

But there are plans to make accommodations for those who don't have access to the internet or are not tech literate, such as scheduling appointments over the phone, Ban told NBC's TODAY. However, it's unclear when such accommodations will be available.

White House senior advisor Andy Slavitt, who was instrumental in fixing the Obamacare website in 2014, hopes the process will be more streamlined than the current one.

"We're looking at various options to make it easier for someone who wants to know: Hey, if there's a vaccine near me, maybe it's not at my nearest pharmacy, maybe it's at a pharmacy that's two pharmacies away, or maybe it's at a hospital or a clinic," Slavitt told NPR's "All Things Considered" on Tuesday.

"How do we help people find the answer to that? And so we're working on that."

When can healthy young people get the vaccine?

Dr. Anthony Fauci said that, based on current projections, April will be "open season" for getting vaccines, during an interview with NBC News' TODAY on Thursday. "Namely virtually everybody and anybody in any category can start to get vaccinated," he said.

Ultimately, young healthy people will not be able to get the vaccine until more vulnerable groups are vaccinated. There's hope that as more vaccines are authorized for use, beyond Pfizer-BioNTech's and Moderna's, more people will be able to get vaccinated to speed up that process.

Check out: What you need to know about the Covid vaccines: From how long it takes to build immunity to info on Moderna’s variant booster

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This story has been updated to reflect Fauci's statement on current vaccine projections.