Pharmacies lobby for law change to maintain role in vaccinations

Jan. 28—MANKATO — Minnesotans seeking COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic were most likely to receive them at pharmacies, according to state data, but a law change would be needed for the settings to maintain their roles in vaccine administration long-term.

Pharmacies accounted for 38.6 percent, or 4,607,693 total doses, of vaccines administered in Minnesota through Jan. 21. Primary care settings were next on the list at about 32%, followed by community vaccination sites at 9.8% and public health agencies at 8.6%.

The federal Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, or PREP, enabled pharmacies' prominent role in vaccinations. It allowed pharmacy technicians and interns, rather than just pharmacists, to provide approved vaccines.

The Minnesota Pharmacists Association is now lobbying for a state law to make the PREP Act changes permanent, as they'd otherwise expire next year.

"I think pharmacies have shown that we can do this work," said Sarah Derr, the association's executive director. "We've been doing it for three years, so why not continue it?"

Federal and state government vaccine strategies relied on immunizations being available in a wide range of settings. Pharmacies, Derr said, proved helpful due to patient familiarity and proximity.

"Most patients live within five miles of a pharmacy, where as some of our rural areas may not have a clinic available or hospital available and have to drive more than a half hour to get access," she said.

The change wouldn't only apply to COVID-19 vaccines. Pharmacy staff would also be able to provide other approved adult and pediatric vaccines for influenza, shingles and other illnesses. Pharmacies were already the main providers of influenza vaccines during a period spanning from before the pandemic into the pandemic's first years, according to a report from the Global Health Living Initiative.

Previously, though, primary care providers administered the majority of vaccines. A 2021 report by the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care found primary care physicians provided 54% of vaccines in during a five-year period before the pandemic.

The report touted the counseling aspect of primary care in vaccine administration as important in offsetting hesitancy. By meeting with a trusted doctor, the idea goes, hesitant patients may be more likely to end up getting vaccinated.

Derr said the law change is more about maintaining strong access than taking away from what primary care providers do. Pharmacies would continue to refer patients to primary care when appropriate, whether for vaccines or other medical needs.

On the law change's chances in the Minnesota Legislature, Derr said she thinks it has legs and is feeling "very confident." The association is working with senators and representatives to draft a bill, which could be introduced in the coming weeks.

Minnesota is one of 25 states in which a law change is needed for pharmacies to continue their pandemic-level roles in providing vaccines.

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