Without action, Pennsylvanians could lose access to pharmacy vaccination care
Together we have sacrificed a lot to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. It is understandable that many want to move on. Still, a critical job remains — acting on the emergency’s lessons once and for all so our sacrifices are not in vain.
Pennsylvania legislators and Gov. Tom Wolf have the chance right now to prevent the rollback of patients’ access to essential health and wellness services — in rural and urban areas alike. At the same time they can improve health equity and boost readiness for future public health crises.
Our leaders can accomplish this by passing and enacting legislation (HB1535/ SB 511) that would make the federal government’s temporary approach to vaccinations during the pandemic a permanent solution here in Pennsylvania. It would give individuals and families continued access to their pharmacies for vaccines authorized or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — access that otherwise will go away at the official end of the public health emergency.
What’s more, enacting this legislation would deliver decisive action, without relying on waiver after waiver to overcome the barriers and limitations of current Pennsylvania law. We shouldn’t leave patients’ health care access to chance.
During the pandemic, Pennsylvanians benefited from the unique vaccination and COVID-19 testing access presented by pharmacies in grocery stores, traditional independent and chain pharmacies, as well as other retailers. Nationally, there is a pharmacy within 5 miles of 90% of Americans. We need to ensure people can continue this safe and convenient means for getting preventative health care services close to home, even after the pandemic is over.
According to federal government statistics, pharmacies have provided more than two of every three COVID-19 vaccine doses. More than 46% of COVID-19 vaccine doses for children ages 5 to 11 were given at a pharmacy. Half of pharmacy COVID-19 vaccination sites are located in areas with high social vulnerability, and 70% of pharmacy testing sites are in areas with moderate to severe social vulnerability. This means a lot for rural and urban areas alike.
Pennsylvania health officials have credited pharmacies and pharmacy teams for their lights-on, doors-open dedication that has helped 67.6% of the state’s population get fully vaccinated — ahead of the 66% rate nationally. People clearly took advantage of our pharmacies being given authority to provide life-saving vaccines at a critical time in our history. Now our lawmakers need to guarantee this same accessibility is ready to go, without delay, in the face of any new variants or viruses. Further, Pennsylvania can help residents benefit from reliable access for their routine vaccination needs.
Our commonwealth has established itself as a leader in various aspects of vaccination policy. Since 2002, Pennsylvania's adults have been able to get vaccinations recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from pharmacies. Many states did not learn the importance of that policy until after the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009. Children 9 years of age and older have benefited from pharmacist-provided flu shots since 2015.
Under the laws currently on the books in Pennsylvania, pharmacist-provided vaccinations are tied to special arrangements with physicians. These special arrangements present unnecessary barriers. Other states – including Virginia, Florida, Georgia and Illinois – recently have come to that conclusion and have enacted legislation similar to that which is proposed in Pennsylvania.
There is reason to believe that residents of states throughout the nation expect their leaders to keep the access in place that has benefited them throughout the pandemic. A survey by Morning Consult, commissioned by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, found that 70% of adults support extending the national approach that has given patients enhanced access to vaccinations at pharmacies – and 68% back making it permanent.
That said, action in Harrisburg ultimately will be necessary to preserve this access. Even if the federal government further extends its policies, it is not likely to do so forever.
We all have been through a lot over the past two years. We owe it to ourselves to minimize the damage of any future public health crises, and to keep ourselves as healthy as we can on a daily basis.
The pandemic has shown us yet again that maintaining pharmacy access is crucial to that end. We ought to learn from that lesson and act on it immediately, so we can move on with confidence.
— Victoria E. Elliott, RPh, MBA, CAE, is the Chief Executive Officers of the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association. Vice president of Pharmacy at Weis Market Rick Seipp is also the president of the Pennsylvania Association of Chain Drug Stores.