OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite making it a top priority, Oklahoma has been struggling to get COVID-19 vaccines into the arms of long-term care residents enrolled in the federal pharmacy partnership program with CVS and Walgreens.
Delays have gotten so bad that the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs abruptly severed ties with CVS, the federal pharmacy partner that was slated to vaccinate thousands of residents and staff living and working within its veteran’s homes.
The Oklahoma National Guard will instead be running vaccine clinics at six state-run veterans’ homes this weekend through a new partnership with the Oklahoma Health Department.
According to a spreadsheet provided to CNHI Oklahoma, as of Thursday CVS had not vaccinated any Oklahomans living in long-term care facilities. The spreadsheet notes that the long-term care vaccination effort isn’t slated to start until Jan. 18.
“So far (response) hasn’t been great,” said Shawn Kirkland, director of homes with the Oklahoma VA. “It hasn’t been as quick as we’d like it to be.”
He said that as of Friday only residents and staff within its Talihina location had been vaccinated.
Kirkland said his agency split from CVS after learning that it would be at least another week before the remaining six veterans’ homes would get COVID-19 vaccine access.
“We’re excited to finally get going and hopefully move toward getting back to some kind of normal,” Kirkland said.
For weeks, the state has been setting aside some of its limited vaccination supply to distribute to the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-term Care Program that is operating through agreements with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Operation Warp Speed and CVS Health and Walgreens.
Nursing homes and long-term care facilities were given the option to opt into the federal program and most chose to participate, state officials said.
Oklahoma has tried to prioritize vaccinating residents living in long-term care facilities and nursing homes because older Oklahomans are among the most vulnerable to the deadly virus.
In a statement, CVS Health said it is working with Oklahoma to reallocate vaccine supply so that the Oklahoma National Guard can vaccinate “those who have given so much in service to our country.”
“We’re grateful for our partnership with the state and for our health care professionals who are working together throughout Oklahoma to bring peace of mind to the state’s veteran homes residents, staff and their loved ones,” said Joe Goode, a spokesman for the company.
He said the company completed the Talihina home’s vaccinations on Jan. 2, and the National Guard will vaccinate the remaining six veterans homes as soon as possible.
“We continue to work diligently to complete vaccinations for our assisted-living facility partners by the end of the month,” Goode said.
Oklahoma was among the first 11 states to launch the federal partnership program Dec. 21. It chose which types of facilities to prioritize first, CVS said. The state, though, is among the last to start vaccinating long-term care residents through the program, according to the spreadsheet released by CVS.
“Our work with long-term care facilities isn’t a mass vaccination effort — quite the opposite,” said Larry J. Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Health, in a statement. “We’re dealing with a vulnerable population that requires onsite and, in some cases, in-room visits at facilities with fewer than 100 residents on average. Despite these challenges we remain on schedule, and the number of vaccines we administer will continue to rise as more facilities are activated by the states.”
In an email, Walgreens said it could not provide location-specific information or vaccination figures. The company said it would continue to expand vaccinations to nearly 3 million residents and staff at 35,000 long-term care facilities nationwide as states finalize distribution plans and receive vaccine allocations.
“We have been concerned about the rate at which the long-term care facility program has rolled out,” said Keith Reed, the state deputy commissioner of health, in an email. “However, the schedules we are currently showing is that all facilities are being scheduled for the first visit by mid-February at the latest.”
He said Oklahoma’s skilled nursing homes, which provide constant medical supervision, should all have their first vaccinations completed no later than next week.
The “Plan B” facilities, which include assisted living centers and long-term care facilities, will then be next on the list.
“Since it is a federal program, (the Health Department) does not have any control, as well as limited visibility into the program,” he said. “There are about 175 facilities that never opted into the program, and for those that did not, (the Health Department) quickly mobilized local resources across the state to vaccinate these facilities within the first two weeks of the roll out.”
CVS Health reports 60 Oklahoma skilled nursing facilities — or nursing homes — have chosen to partner with it. Of those, vaccinations have been given in 58 locations. The last two locations have clinics scheduled within the next seven days, according to the spreadsheet.
In all, 2,579 COVID-19 doses have been administered at Oklahoma’s nursing homes, CVS records show.
The company’s spreadsheet does not say how many long-term care facilities in Oklahoma have partnered with CVS because those vaccine clinics won’t be active until Jan. 18.
“It is understandable that everyone wants the vaccine as soon as possible,” said Steve Buck, Care Providers Oklahoma president and CEO, in an email. “Unfortunately, supplies are limited so we are not surprised that the roll out is taking some time.”
Buck said he is grateful that CVS and Walgreens have treated Oklahoma’s nursing home residents as a priority and are nearly finished vaccinating them. Those Oklahomans are at highest risk when it comes to COVID-19.
“As vaccine distribution continues, we want to underscore the importance of all residents and staff of long-term care facilities involved in the Phase One plan having access to the vaccine,” he said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.