A year ago, the Missouri Pharmacy Association was looking forward to an exciting year in the Missouri Capitol. We were actively working with our Board of Directors and legislative leaders to implement our Vision 2020 legislative proposals for the upcoming session. Then came March, and it seems like the world ground to a halt. We quickly went from a busy schedule of planning, travel, and endless meetings to a world of remote work, Zoom meetings, and panic as the country tried to come to grips with the new pandemic that was beginning to spread in communities across the country — COVID-19.
As we saw hospitals beginning to limit access and cancel/redirect elective surgeries, and physician’s offices closed or restricted access as well, pharmacists became critical health care professionals in communities across Missouri. There was a growing panic in our state and scared patients had questions and concerns. Oftentimes the only health care professional that patients were able to immediately access and talk to was their community pharmacist. Pharmacies became critical health care facilities in many places because of their accessibility. Even though some pharmacies were forced to close the front end of their store, they still continued drive-through and curbside delivery, always with access to the pharmacist or staff if the patient had questions. This lasted through much of the spring, summer, and in some areas into the fall as the country awaited the development of a vaccine to help combat this disruptive and oftentimes deadly virus.
Coordinating a system to vaccinate up to 6+ million Missourians is an arduous and complicated process. One thing is clear — it will take participation from a broad group of health care providers. Pharmacists are key participants in the process because of their training/education and the fact that they are in communities all across the state of Missouri. The Missouri Pharmacy Association has been working with a group of partner organizations over the past nine months to help create the legal and professional framework for pharmacists to participate in administering the COVID vaccines as they become available. As the Trump administration loosened regulations, we worked with Gov. Mike Parson, the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), and the Missouri Board of Pharmacy (MBOP) to make sure that the roll-back of regulations were implemented in Missouri as well. We have also been working with MO HealthNet (MHD) and DHSS to finalize the procedures for pharmacists to be able to have access to vaccines once they are available and to develop a process for pharmacists to be able to bill for the administration of the vaccines. We have worked with McKesson, a Fortune 4 company, and a drug wholesaler, on their “Operation Warp Speed” Task Force to help develop a strategy for the distribution of the vaccines within the state.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued some guidelines as to the priority for distribution and administration of the first shipments of the vaccines. We have participated in workgroups with DHHS and other health care provider groups in Missouri to help prepare for the implementation. The first vaccines are going to “forward-facing” health care providers (those who are doing the COVID testing, administering the vaccines, etc.) as well as residents of long-term facilities. Two large pharmacy chains were awarded the contract to administer the vaccines in long term care facilities. However, Missouri has both large urban areas and many rural communities. We have worked with pharmacists in smaller communities that may not have large pharmacy chains to ensure they have the resources to support their community at this time.
There are strict reporting requirements for pharmacists (and other health care professionals who are administering the vaccines). We have been coordinating with DHSS and ShowMeVax to get pharmacists ready to report through this statewide tracking system.
This has been a defining moment in time for Missouri pharmacists. The training they receive in pharmacy school has changed considerably — especially over the past two decades. We have been working in the Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City and in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to help create a practice environment where they can fully utilize their skills as a pharmacist. The COVID pandemic has provided that opportunity. We appreciate the opportunity to work with all of the health care providers who have operated as a team during this crisis. Pharmacists are consistently ranked as number one or two on the “Most Trusted Health Care Professional” surveys. They will be a key partner as we strive over the next four to six months to make the COVID vaccine available to any resident of Missouri who wants to be vaccinated.
Ron Fitzwater is the CEO of the Missouri Pharmacy Association.