Colorado’s independent pharmacies struggle to obtain COVID-19 vaccine

In late December, shortly after the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Colorado, Michael Scruggs received word from state public health officials that his pharmacy in Englewood would be able to administer the shots to patients when they became available to the wider public in Phase 2.

At the time, Colorado wasn’t expected to move into that phase until the spring, when a pool of people ranging from essential workers to those with underlying health conditions would become eligible.

Since then, the state has revised its rollout of the vaccine three more times, moving more people who were initially in Phase 2 higher up in prioritization. And independent pharmacies are getting left behind — despite what the owners say is their quicker access to communities and built-in trust with patients.

“If you would have asked me a month ago, I would have said I’d have vaccine by now,” Scruggs said. “I can do this fast. I can do this social distancing. I have prepared for this.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has approved more than 770 organizations — the majority being health systems, community clinics and local public health agencies — to administer COVID-19 vaccines. Of the roughly 163 pharmacies approved, only about nine are independent pharmacies, with the reset being big chains like King Soopers, City Market and Safeway.

“We proactively invited all providers who submitted our initial interest form to enroll,” a state Department of Public Health and Environment spokesperson said in an email. “We have hundreds of pharmacies who order vaccine every week and get allocations based on the critical populations they serve and where they fit within Colorado’s phased distribution.”

While independent pharmacies may not be able to run a mass vaccination clinic, they can help states increase geographical access. The smaller companies can also operate outside of regular 9-to-5 hours and on weekends for people who are unable to take off of work.

And the pharmacies also can reach people with conditions that put them at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 because those relationships are likely already established, said Julie Swann, a professor at North Carolina State University.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Cars navigate orange cones and people with flags as they head to vaccination tents for COVID-19 vaccinations administered in the parking lots of Coors Field on Jan. 31, 2021. UCHealth organized the large-scale COVID-19 vaccination event.

Lucas Smith, who owns two independent pharmacies in Chaffee County, said most of the county’s doses are going to the local public health department and Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center in Salida.

He said if he got more doses, he could hold a clinic in Buena Vista, which would help out older residents who might be wary of driving more than 20 miles in the winter. But the state health department has rejected his application since his pharmacies, Buena Vista Drug and Salida Pharmacy and Fountain, received 100 doses each in early January.

“As far as our more rural areas, I think there is good supply in the county,” he said, “but I think it is more focused on the southern part of the county.”

Colorado has moved quickly to make more people eligible for the shots but those efforts have been hindered by a national shortage of COVID-19 vaccines.

One state that has had more success is West Virginia, which unlike Colorado and other states, did not partner with a federal program to have CVS and Walgreens vaccinate long-term care and assisted living facilities. Instead, West Virginia delivered its vaccine supply to mostly independent pharmacies, Swann said.

The Biden administration announced earlier this week that in an effort to speed up vaccine distribution it will send 1 million doses to a broader group of about 6,500 pharmacies across the nation through a different program. It’s under this program that Front Range Pharmacy, which Scruggs co-owns, will be getting doses, but he said he has not received word on when.

Instead, he said his customers with the means to do so are driving miles to get COVID-19 vaccine, including one woman who went to Texas to get her first shot without a guarantee of a second one.