PLYMOUTH, Minnesota — The federal government started shipping COVID-19 vaccine doses directly to some pharmacies on Feb. 11 as a way to increase access to the vaccination.
In Minnesota, the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program's initial partners include Walmart and Thrifty White Pharmacy.
Last week, Thrifty White received about 8,000 doses for its Minnesota locations and 2,300 in North Dakota. The company — headquartered in Plymouth — expects to receive a similar amount this week.
"It was pretty good. We didn't crash our website. ... We hit max capacity on Tuesday morning. Our CIO told us it was like Black Friday," said Jeremy Faulks, director of specialty pharmacy at Thrifty White Pharmacy.
Faulks is heading up the COVID vaccine process for the company.
As part of the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, Thrifty White helped vaccinate residents and staff at long-term care facilities starting in late December. Now they're expanding on the retail side.
"We opened it up Tuesday morning and I think about 7 p.m. Tuesday night we were completely full," Faulks recalled.
While Faulks said they're waiting to receive final numbers for this week, the number of doses (8,000 for Minnesota) will be similar every week moving forward. Faulks added that the federal government will not pull the vaccine back.
It's one way of reaching more people in rural communities.
"I think that's where we play a really important role, especially with Thrifty White Pharmacy. We think about some of the communities we're in ... we're in a lot of small towns across Minnesota and North Dakota," Faulks said.
To meet the demand, Thrifty White trained 140 of its pharmacy technicians to support the rollout.
"That's able to take a lot of the workload off our pharmacists because now they're not required to go and give shots all day. They can actually do a lot of what they normally do and our technician can then step out and manage the vaccination side of this," Faulks said.
Pharmacies across the state have been overwhelmed with phone calls from people wanting to schedule appointments for the vaccine.
Thrifty White's locations have also experienced an influx in calls. The chain will be launching a dedicated call center this week. The number will be posted on their website as soon as it's available.
Also later this week, Thrifty White will be launching a waiting list on its website.
"Rather than have to keep checking back and wondering if we have appointments open, you can just sign up on the waiting list and we can send you an email or give you a phone call as soon as we have vaccine that we know is coming and when we start opening appointments up," Faulks said. "We can actually have everyone sign up and when you sign up we'll ask you some questions around your specific priority group. So if you're a teacher or you're an essential worker, we'll have you note that. Then as we have appointments open up, we'll push specifically to lists of people that qualify based on what phase we're in right now."
About 90% of Thrifty White's pharmacies in Minnesota and North Dakota will have doses. As more vaccine becomes available, Faulks said they will add their Iowa locations.
Thrifty White is currently scheduling appointments for those 65 and older. According to Faulks, open time slots should appear on the website either Monday night or Tuesday morning.