HHS Inks Deal with CVS, Walgreens to Distribute COVID-19 Vaccines to Nursing Homes [UPDATED]

Retail pharmacy heavyweights Walgreens Boots Alliance (Nasdaq: WBA) and CVS Health (NYSE: CVS) have entered into agreements with the federal government to distribute the eventual COVID-19 vaccine to nursing home residents at no cost, President Trump and multiple government agencies announced on Friday.

“Today, I’m thrilled to announce that we have just finalized a partnership with CVS and Walgreens — two places you know pretty well, I guess — to immediately deliver the vaccine directly to nursing homes at no cost to our seniors. No cost,” the president said at an event in Fort Myers, Fla.

The Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program will cover seniors in a range of congregate care settings, including nursing homes, assisted living facilities, residential care properties, and adult care homes, according to a joint statement from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense.

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Nursing home operators can opt into the program, starting October 19, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN) platform. Providers can select between CVS or Walgreens as their vaccination partner, and will not be charged for the service.

The federal government has already funded the cost of acquiring and distributing the vaccine, with CVS and Walgreens then billing Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance plans to cover the cost of actually administering the individual doses, according to Paul Mango, deputy chief of staff for policy at HHS.

Once the government provides an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, the pharmacy companies will schedule on-site immunization dates directly with nursing facilities; three visits will likely be required to provide the anticipated two-dose vaccines to each building’s residents and staff.

“Within 24 to 48 hours of the time that a EUA is authorized, we expect to be putting needles in people’s arms,” Mango said on a Friday press call. “So all of this is a pre-staging for what will be a rapid deployment of vaccines.”

Long-term care pharmacies and operators within the space have raised concerns about the logistical hurdles of administering a pending vaccine, citing the extreme cold storage required for at least one of the treatments under development — as well as anticipated public reporting burdens.

The Friday announcement addresses those issues directly, with HHS and the Department of Defense indicating that the two companies will:

  • “Receive and manage vaccines and associated supplies (syringes, needles, and personal protective equipment)
  • Ensure cold chain management for vaccine
  • Provide on-site administration of vaccine
  • Report required vaccination data (including who was vaccinated, with what vaccine, and where) to the state, local, or territorial, and federal public health authorities within 72 hours of administering each dose
  • Adhere to all applicable Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) requirements for COVID-19 testing for LTCF staff”

Operators will not be required to participate in the program and can use their own preferred distribution partners. But the federal officials on the Friday call framed the Walgreens/CVS plan as the best choice, pointing to the companies’ ability to serve buildings in isolated rural areas and experience with providing flu vaccines to LTC facilities.

“It’s important to recognize that we believe that this plan will be the quickest and easiest way to be able to provide vaccines to long-term care facility residents,” Mango said.

American Health Care Association (AHCA) president and CEO Mark Parkinson encouraged the group’s members, which consist primarily of for-profit nursing facilities, to take advantage of the program as soon as possible.

“We deeply appreciate the administration, CVS, and Walgreens for partnering together to prioritize the distribution of an imminent vaccine to our most vulnerable population,” Parkinson said in a statement. “With millions residing in our nation’s long term care facilities, our providers stand ready to help facilitate this monumental endeavor.”

Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of non-profit senior care organization LeadingAge, criticized the Trump administration for taking this long to release a coordinated strategy for vaccination, but also expressed hope that it could eventually provide relief to long-term care residents.

“It’s heartening to see that the administration’s planning has begun. The vaccine is still months away, so there is time to get this right,” Sloan said in a statement. “Above all, we hope this program will help protect the millions of people most at risk. We look forward to learning more about how it will roll out.”

Seniors in long-term care settings will remain prioritized until there is a sufficient number of vaccines to supply every American who wants one, the HHS told the Reuters news service in a statement.

“Early in the COVID-19 Vaccination Program, there may be a limited supply of COVID-19 vaccine, and vaccination efforts may focus on those critical to the response, those providing direct care, and those at highest risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19, including long-term care facility residents,” the HHS and DOD indicated in their release.

The deal will only kick in once a vaccine receives federal approval; the HHS and DOD statement emphasized that no such vaccine currently exists, but that the program was established with the expectation that one or multiple options may be ready by the end of the year.

“These are very effective,” Trump said during the event. “Once you have that vaccine, you can open those doors and say: ‘Here I am.'”

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.