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Randy Creel administers a COVID-19 vaccine dose at Creel’s Family Pharmacy in Franklinton. (Courtesy of Randy Creel)

By Matthew Bennett
LSU Manship News Service

Constant phone calls and entering names onto growing lists, deleting old names and re-arranging others after cancellations and no-shows, juggling a varying number of COVID-19 vaccines from one period to the next – this is what mom-and-pop pharmacies around the state have been doing along with their regular services.

“You might have to make a list of a thousand phone numbers, and a hundred of those have probably already gotten the vaccine,” said Jimmy Taylor, lead pharmacist at Don Chaucer’s Pharmacy in Hammond. “We’ve never done anything like this. You can’t just walk in and get a COVID vaccine like the flu. It’s a learning curve for all of us. If we have a heavy day, we have to bring in nurses to give the shots for me so I can keep running the pharmacy.”

Out of the 486 vaccine providers in the state, 102 independent pharmacies represent over a fifth of distribution sites, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. While distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines was a new and challenging task for all distributors, many of the independent pharmacies lacked the infrastructure of the drug-store chains and hospitals to be able to administer large quantities of shots daily.

Randy Creel, the owner of Creel’s Family Pharmacy in Franklinton, described the distribution process as “very hectic.” He said he has spent most of 2021 giving 20 vaccines a day while filling prescriptions and handling other duties.

Creel’s was the first pharmacy to receive vaccines in Washington Parish, which sits above St. Tammany Parish north of New Orleans.

“We were getting people from all over South Louisiana coming in,” Creel said. “It’s just an extra amount of work by the time you do the paperwork, get the patient’s information, get the insurance and put it in the computer. You do that 20 times a day on top of checking prescriptions [and] talking to doctors and customers.”

Despite these challenges, mom-and-pop pharmacies are a crucial piece of the vaccination puzzle, particularly in rural areas.

Rural Louisianans trail urban residents by 31% in COVID-19 vaccinations, according to a recent analysis by The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette.

With more than 2.5 million Louisianans living outside of urban areas, local pharmacies could help boost those rates by giving people a chance to receive the vaccine from familiar faces they trust.

That could become even more important with news Tuesday that federal regulators are pausing deliveries of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine to check into a rare blood clotting problem. There have not been any safety problems with the earlier and more widely distributed vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna.

“I’ve been out of school about 40 years, and I’ve never done anything that people appreciated more than giving these vaccines,” Creel said. “People are really thankful for it. It’s been a blessing to us and the community. It’s been a little hard, too, but that goes along with life, I suppose.”

Independent pharmacies also are making an impact in urban areas.

Jesse Vidrine, the owner of Boudreaux’s New Drug Store in Lake Charles, said that his store is administering about 1,200 vaccines a week. He said that makes it the largest independent vaccine distributor in the state.

Vidrine and his wife Kylee are the only staff members giving the shots, averaging between 40 and 50 vaccinations every 30 minutes.

“This idea that large corporations are always the best at everything because they’re so big is not the case,” Vidrine said. “Independent pharmacies, like us, we’re the ones really shouldering the load. Because we are not a chain, we are more flexible, we can move quicker, we can make changes faster.”

He recalled how the public health coordinator for Southwest Louisiana had reached out to see if he could take an extra 500 vaccines that were set to expire if not used in the next four days. He accepted and administered all 500.

Vidrine said his store’s ability to operate on such short notice is what sets it apart from chain pharmacies at a time when acting quickly can save lives.

According to the Health Department, Louisiana has topped 448,000 COVID-19 cases and 10,200 deaths. With over 2.2 million vaccine doses already administered and roughly 20% of the state fully vaccinated, Louisianans who are less confident in the safety of COVID-19 vaccines are becoming a bigger focus for distributors and officials.

After detailing many of the early hurdles in dealing with such a high volume of willing patients in Hammond, Taylor remarked that Don Chaucer’s Pharmacy is “having trouble finding people that want them now.”

Courtney Phillips, the state health secretary, warned in late February that this would be a problem.

“As we move into these eligibility groups, the hesitancy is going to be there,” Phillips said then. “You’re going to see that across the nation. Louisiana will not be unique. We’re going to have to put the work in. You can put a vaccine in a community, but you have to be able to reach people so that they know it’s there, know how to set up and know how to give it.”

Phillips expressed this urgency at an event in Baton Rouge where about 2,200 Moderna vaccines were administered at the Living Faith Christian Center to local Black residents. State officials have been working with religious organizations to overcome hesitancy about the vaccines in the African American community.

The concerns about whether enough Louisiana residents are getting the vaccine were amplified by a recent survey from LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab, which found that 43% of Republicans in Louisiana do not intend to take COVID-19 vaccines.

That compares to the hesitancy of only 13% of Democrats and suggests that the politically red state may continue to face a lag in vaccination numbers, especially in more conservative rural areas.

Taylor of Don Chaucer’s believes that people who are generally opposed to vaccines and residents less confident in the shots are now going to be the focus. He added that local pharmacies with staff members who have already received the vaccine themselves could help instill more confidence in skeptics.

As far as current vaccine availability, online forums and groups like the “NOLA Vaccine Hunters” on Facebook provide communities to share information about unused doses that pop up around the state. Some of its members recommend local and independent pharmacies that have found success in vaccinating residents on-the-fly.

The state also just set up a hotline – 855-453-0774 – that residents can call to set up vaccine appointments. Officials say this also should help in poorer and more rural areas that lack internet access.

The Center for Infectious Disease and Research Policy at the University of Minnesota suggests that approximately 70 percent of a population need to be immune to COVID-19 in order to reach herd immunity.

With Louisiana still far below that number, independent pharmacies and other vaccine distributors will continue to play a key role in pushing past the coronavirus pandemic.

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