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Federal government to ship COVID vaccines directly to pharmacies this week

Starting Feb. 11, the federal government will ship doses directly to some pharmacies on top of allocations to states.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — As vaccinations ramp up, more doses are going to pharmacies. 

This week, the first phase of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program launches. Starting Feb. 11, the federal government will ship COVID-19 vaccines directly to some pharmacies on top of allocations to states. 

It will start with about 1 million doses per week that will go to 6,500 retail pharmacies across the country, eventually increasing to 40,000 drug stores.

"I'd say a few weeks ago pharmacists were frustrated because they wanted to give the vaccine and we didn't have it yet," said Sarah Derr, executive director of the Minnesota Pharmacists Association.

Derr said that has changed in the last two weeks thanks to a state pharmacy pilot program. The program includes pharmacies of all sizes. 

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"I think it's giving us some good insight into how pharmacies can roll out vaccine once it's allocated to them," Derr said. "Last week we had 19 pharmacies that received at least 100 doses. We have three areas across the state that pharmacies received 500 doses to help with teachers and childcare providers."

Now the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program will be helping pharmacies ramp up efforts. The program includes 21 national pharmacy partners and independent pharmacy networks to increase access to COVID-19 vaccination across the country. Partners include Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy, Walmart, Kroger, Rite Aid, Publix, Costco, Hy-Vee and more. You can see the full list, here. Retail pharmacies participating in the program will vary by state and territory. 

RELATED: More COVID vaccines will soon be going to pharmacies nationwide

In Minnesota, Walmart and Thrifty White are participating in the first phase of the program. The retailers will be administering over 16,000 vaccine doses to adults 65 and older at locations across the state.

This week, Gov. Walz is also reallocating 8,000 doses to 40 in-store Walgreens pharmacies across the state. These doses will also be used to vaccinate Minnesotans 65 and older. According to a press release, this is a one-time reallocation of doses not scheduled for use from the Pharmacy Partnership Program.

Once appointments are open at Walmart, Thrifty White and Walgreens, locations and contact information to schedule them will be available here

"I think it's really exciting that we're at least getting the vaccine out to pharmacists and that's where patients are used to getting vaccinated for things like the flu vaccine," Derr said.

The federal program is also a way to try and reach some of the populations most at risk for severe illness from COVID-19. 

"We have 95% of patients that live within five miles of a pharmacy. So they are actually able to get that vaccine very readily and very much available if it's in the pharmacy but we have to get that allocation out to the pharmacy in order to do that," Derr said. 

The demand at Minnesota pharmacies has led to some sites taking more than 1,000 calls per day, according to Derr. 

Derr is urging people not to sign up for multiple waiting lists as it adds time for pharmacists to contact everyone. She also suggests signing up online, if you can, and leaving the phone lines open for those who are not as tech-savvy. 

"I think the biggest thing that I'm suggesting right now to patients is please get on a waiting list and be patient," Derr said. "It's going to take time before we can actually get everybody vaccinated."