Louisiana pharmacies overwhelmed as COVID-19 vaccine eligibility expands

The state released a list of pharmacies that could vaccinate people 70 and older

Charlotte Bertrand, of St. Francisville Pharmacy, believes she will give out 100 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the week.
Charlotte Bertrand, of St. Francisville Pharmacy, believes she will give out 100 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the week. (Photo by Julie O'Donoghue)

Louisiana pharmacies selected to receive COVID-19 vaccinations that can be used to inoculate people 70 years old and above were inundated with phone calls after the state made their business names and locations public Monday morning (Jan. 4).

“The phone just doesn’t stop ringing,” said pharmacist Constance Rabalais of Sentry Drug of Marksville. “I’ve never seen anything like this. People started calling on Thursday before we even knew if we were going to receive it.”

The state started distributing the vaccines to commercial pharmacies for the first time this week — a process several pharmacists described on Monday as chaotic and overwhelming. 

In all, only a fraction of the state’s pharmacies will receive any vaccine supply this week at all. Out of thousands, the state selected 107 pharmacies in 51 parishes to carry the first widely distributed doses of vaccine. The list includes 61 independent pharmacies and 45 regional and national operators.  

Demand for the vaccine is exponentially larger than the supply. It’s also a difficult time of year for pharmacists to be taking on extra work, about a dozen independent pharmacists said in interviews. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced last Thursday, on New Years Eve, that pharmacists would start receiving supplies to vaccinate people 70 and over this week. The news caught pharmacists off guard. Many didn’t know until hours after Edwards’ spoke to the press whether their pharmacy had even been selected to carry the vaccine. 

“They are not really giving us a whole bunch of info,” said Miles Stelly, a pharmacist and owner of Bon Ami Pharmacy in Breaux Bridge.

Until this week, the vaccine was only being given to different types of healthcare workers, some first responders, residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities as well as people with kidney disease. But once the governor said people 70 and over were eligible, people started lining up outside of pharmacies and calling to book appointments. 

There are about 485,000 people 70 and over in Louisiana. Pharmacies are slated to receive just 10,500 doses of the vaccine this week, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. Seniors also aren’t the only people who qualify for those vaccine doses. People who work in ambulatory centers and outpatient health clinics can also get vaccinated at a pharmacy starting this week, further increasing the demand for  the number of doses available. 

All the pharmacies contacted said they only expected to receive 100 doses for the week, and already had waiting lists for patients that were over 200 people long by early Monday afternoon.

The first week of the new year is already a particularly busy time for pharmacists. Many independent operators had been shut down for the holidays, and customers often need guidance on health insurance changes, since they might have switched health plans to start the new year.

“Starting this on the first Monday of the new year? It’s a nightmare,” said Carl Savoie of Carl’s Thrifty Way Pharmacy in Opelousas. “This is not organized, and I have to take care of normal customers.”

The pharmacists interviewed said they hadn’t received the vaccine doses yet, but even if they had received them, they would hold off on administering them until at least Tuesday. They had to use Monday to answer phones, schedule appointments and come up with a logistical plan for giving out the vaccine.

The state told the pharmacists that they cannot waste doses of the vaccine. Each vaccine vial contains 10 doses which must be used within six hours of getting opened. That makes the scheduling more complicated, Savoie said.

Savoie said his pharmacy is going to maintain an “on-call” list of people who want the vaccine and can get to the pharmacy on very short notice. This list will be used if people don’t show up for their designated appointments and Savoie has extra vaccine doses he has to use before they expire. 

Goudeau’s Healthmart Pharmacy in Plaquemine has a different tactic to avoid waste. It is going to require ten clients to show up together at 6 p.m. every evening to receive the vaccine as a group. That way, they know all 10 vaccine doses will be administered for the day before they expire. It will also prevent vaccine distribution from interfering with the pharmacy’s regular business, since it will take place after hours. 

Pharmacies that  are facing a potentially wasted vaccine dose can administer it to any person in an emergency, even if the person isn’t currently eligible for receiving the shot. But the pharmacist must make an effort to find people who qualify — such as a healthcare worker or a person 70 and over — before they do so, according to guidance from the health department.

Many pharmacies, like Goudeau’s, said they were also planning to administer just 10 vaccine doses per day in order to make the workload manageable. But others said they intend to give out all of their vaccines over the course of just a few days.

“We’re probably going to give out those first 100 doses by the end of the week,” said Charlotte Bertrand, with St. Francisville Pharmacy.

The pharmacies are required to check IDs to verify a person’s age before administering the vaccine. Those who are eligible based on their job — and not their age — will have to provide work identification in order to receive it, according to the health department. Health insurance companies and the government will provide reimbursements to the pharmacy for each shot it administers.