When William Fadel, president and CEO of Grubb’s Pharmacy in Southeast D.C., found out the store would be receiving the COVID-19 vaccine to offer to eligible District residents and workers, he started making a waiting list for his regular customers.
As soon as the store’s allotment arrived, Fadel had the flexibility to call his customers and ask when they’d be able to stop in. Many inquired about the vaccine while picking up prescriptions.
Fadel said the same was true at Kalorama Pharmacy, in Adams Morgan, which started scheduling appointments on its website and began offering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine March 31. The pharmacies receive doses through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which sends the vaccines directly to stores independent of D.C. Health’s weekly allotment.
But on an unexpected conference call this week, Fadel said, D.C. Health’s leaders urged the city’s pharmacies to immediately take down scheduling options on their websites. Instead, they were urged to send residents and workers to the city’s preregistration portal, leaving local pharmacies in limbo.
It’s the latest challenge for the city’s vaccine rollout, which had previously been plagued by website problems.
Washington City Paper first reported the city’s request to the pharmacies.
Since the city started distributing vaccines, D.C. officials have urged the public to register using its portal, stressing the equitable aspects of their approach. While the city advertises vaccine opportunities at hospitals and health clinics, it hasn’t done so with pharmacies, many of which have opened scheduling portals online in recent weeks. The result has been Twitter accounts, such as one called “Coviddc,” that highlight when pharmacies have appointments available.
At a news conference Monday, health director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said the health department worked with pharmacies early on to ensure they all used the same preregistration list. However, she said, “It is not impossible that a site has been activated without our knowledge and is recruiting individuals separately from what is happening in the [D.C. government] portal.”
In a statement to WTOP, a D.C. Health spokeswoman confirmed the department’s call with pharmacies, saying “having multiple links for appointments leads to inequity in vaccine distribution.”
However, the department also said, “We are supportive of the pharmacies having other equitable mechanisms of vaccine administration.”
WTOP has contacted the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine if D.C. has the authority to require local pharmacies to stop scheduling doses independently.
At the city’s urging, Fadel said both Grubb’s Southeast and Kalorama Pharmacy shut down their scheduling websites.
“Right now, it feels like there’s a huge bump in the road,” Fadel told WTOP. “It doesn’t feel good. We’re trapped. We’re putting extra resources to say, ‘No, I can’t do it.’”
The call proved frustrating for Fadel, who said he contacted D.C. Health to collaborate several times when he learned the stores would be offering the vaccine. He said he directed inquiries to two different people but never received a response.
D.C. Health also asked the pharmacies on the call to send the city information regarding how many vaccine appointments they can accommodate hourly. Fadel said he provided that information Wednesday night, but has not heard when the city may be filling the store’s vaccine slots.
Pharmacies were not told to cancel any previously scheduled appointments but were asked not to schedule new ones.
“We begged and pleaded, through the many emails I sent the Department of Health before we were able to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from HHS, that if they’re able, would they send us some of their vaccine, and we’ll be more than happy to vaccinate because we’re trained, qualified and ready,” Fadel said.
Fadel also told D.C. Health Grubb’s would volunteer some of its pharmacists to help vaccinate at city-run sites, but didn’t receive a response.
After the call, Fadel said, he spoke to leaders at pharmacy network CPESN to determine whether it had to comply with the city’s request.
Meanwhile, CVS and Walgreens are still offering the option to make appointments on their websites. Walgreens has been offering the vaccine in D.C. since mid-March, a company spokesman said in an email.
“Given Washington, D.C.’s pre-registration system, we recommend residents check with D.C. Health to determine whether they must pre-register for vaccination in order to receive a vaccine, or if they can register with providers directly as appointments become available,” the spokesman said.
Fadel said ideally, the city would send residents to the pharmacies while also allowing the them to schedule appointments themselves. But until the city, which plans to make everyone 16 and older eligible for a shot next week, contacts him, Fadel said he’s just waiting for direction.
“Just allow us to do what we’re good doing, which is, we do a great job taking care of the public,” Fadel said. “But right now, we’re just strapped, basically.”
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