Independent pharmacies that played a key role in vaccinating in Maine long-term care facilities residents will be left out of an increased allocation next week as the state says it is trying to find a new role for them in the rapidly accelerating effort.
Many got vaccines after Maine took doses from large chains out of frustration with the pace of the federal retail pharmacy program. They have filled gaps in Maine’s vaccine effort, traveling to inoculate people in community housing or assisted living facilities and were credited with using local knowledge and relationships to work quickly, particularly in Aroostook County.
But smaller pharmacies were told on Wednesday that Maine would not be giving them vaccine doses and would be preventing the launch of in-store or community clinics next week, citing a lower-than-expected allocation of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
That was just before the state announced it would be receiving a 28 percent increase in doses next week on Thursday, with more than 6,000 of that attributed to more of the one-dose shot. But most are headed to hospitals and outpatient groups as the state’s vaccine program moves toward universal eligibility for people over 16 on April 19. Those 50 and older are eligible now.
The state has generally sent most of its doses to hospitals in an effort to vaccinate as many people as possible. The process has frustrated smaller providers who say they have the ability to vaccinate people in their community quicker than bigger chains such as Walmart, Walgreens, CVS Health and Hannaford, which get doses through the federal program.
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said he wants to have a “clear mission” and schedule of where vaccines will go before he commits them to independent pharmacies. He said they could go door-to-door or administer vaccines to homebound people.
But Shane Savage, the co-owner of Savage’s Drug of Fairfield, Winslow, Oakland and Unity, said that would be a waste of resources. He questioned why Maine has not brought independent pharmacies into the federal allocation pool, as West Virginia has done. That state initially opted out of the federal retail pharmacy program in favor of using independent pharmacies and not large chains. It was one of the national leaders early in the vaccine rollout.
Savage said his company is capable of vaccinating approximately 500 people per day and that he has been frustrated by reports of retail pharmacies taking last-minute appointments from ineligible people in order to not waste vaccines.
There is a financial aspect as well: Savage often has to send loyal customers to a retail store. He said he recently drove eight hours around the state recently to vaccinate 40 people in group housing, saying the state has been “giving us the clinics no one else wants to do.”
“I don’t have a problem with doing that,” he added. “The problem is, after we did all of that, they now won’t let me vaccinate my own customers.”
Maine has also said it will need to diversify its vaccine options as more people become eligible. Universal eligibility next month will open shots to more than 660,000 people who cannot get shots now. The state is taking applications for “pop up clinics” meant to expand access and Shah said he expected independent pharmacies to have a defined role soon.
“We are sorting out what their next mission is going to be,” he said.