At the Essex Fire Station on Saturday, the staff of Nutmeg Pharmacy in Centerbrook stood in one of the bays around a table stocked with gloves, biohazard containers and syringes. By 9 a.m, people were driving their cars through the bay so that pharmacists could administer the vaccine. By 11:45 a.m., the supply was just about exhausted.
This was the first week that the independent pharmacy was able to obtain COVID vaccines from the state. Chris Olender, pharmacy manager at the Centerbrook location, said they had held three clinics so far — one in Moodus, one in Higganum and one in Essex — and they had vaccinated about 100 people at each.
“Just because we’re small and independent, doesn’t mean we don’t pack a punch,” he said.
Olender said that two pharmacists could vaccinate about 100 people in two hours. He said that while they requested 300 vaccines for each pharmacy, the lack of available vaccines meant that they received only 100 for each.
“I’d be happy to do more,” said Olender.
Independent pharmacies have recently been getting more attention for the role they have paid in the vaccine rollout nationwide. Two of the five states with the highest percentage of vaccines distributed — West Virginia and North Dakota — have relied heavily on independent pharmacies to reach individuals who otherwise might have gone unnoticed.
West Virginia opted out of a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate people living in long-term care facilities, instead working with local pharmacies to distribute the vaccine. A pharmaceutical law in North Dakota that prevents many large chains from operating in the state means that independent pharmacies there have also taken the lead on the vaccination.
At least one other state is now following their lead. Maine has made recent headlines for rerouting large numbers of vaccines to small pharmacies out of frustration with the slow progress that Walgreens and CVS have made in vaccinating the population.
The Personal Touch
Greg McKenna, the chairman of Nutmeg Pharmacy Group, said he believed that smaller pharmacies had the community relationships that were so critical for bringing in locals who might otherwise not know how to go about getting vaccinated.
Nutmeg has four locations in Southern Connecticut — in Moodus, Higganum, Centerbrook and Taftville — and are opening a fifth location in New London in April.
McKenna said that many people in the community had problems dealing with the computer system, or didn’t have access to a computer. He said that Nutmeg has been able to take this problem out of the equation — people can just call them, and the pharmacists will add their name to a spreadsheet. The pharmacists said that not having to use the VAMS system — the CDC database for managing the vaccination rollout — makes it much easier to schedule appointments.
McKenna said that they also travel out to houses to vaccinate those who are homebound.
“We take care of the people that everyone else wants to forget about,” he said. “Communities need that.”
Vaccinating alongside Olender at the Saturday clinic was Cailin Wadja, a student in her last year of pharmacy school at Western New England University.
Wadja said she has been working at Nutmeg for almost six years, since her senior year of high school.
She said she’d vaccinated about 50 people that day.
“There was kind of a mix of emotions,” she said, adding that most people were grateful to finally be getting the vaccine, although she saw a few who were afraid of the side effects.
People were also surprised, she said, by the efficiency of it all. She said some people brought books with them, imagining that they would be waiting in their cars for hours.
Olender said over 600 people had registered to get the vaccine with Nutmeg’s Centerbrook location, and Wadja estimated that between 2500 and 3000 people had registered with all of Nutmeg’s locations. She said they keep a spreadsheet of all the people who registered, and then, as state guidelines allow, they begin scheduling appointments for people who are eligible.
Wadja said that after the clinic that morning, they had vaccinated almost all the individuals 75 and older who had registered with them.
Olender said he hoped they would be able to get a larger weekly allocation in about a month, as they prepare to administer second doses.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to be out in the community,” he said.
Their next clinic is planned for Friday, Feb. 4 at the Essex Town Hall, time TBD. Individuals can register online at the pharmacy website or call to make an appointment.