CVS Looks to Simplify Vaccine Site for Federal Pharmacy Push

CVS Health Corp. has revamped its website where customers can book appointments to get Covid-19 shots, hoping to avoid the confusion and technical snafus that have bedeviled the early phases of the U.S. vaccine rollout.

The nation’s largest pharmacy chain, with about 9,900 locations, added a feature Tuesday that displays a map of the U.S. highlighting the states where it’s offering vaccines. When a user clicks on a state, a window pops up showing who is eligible for immunization, which CVS stores are offering vaccines, whether appointments are available and when the data was last updated.

“The more information and the more empowerment we can give to consumers early in the process, the less frustration for them and the better off we are,” CVS Chief Digital Officer Firdaus Bhathena said in an interview Wednesday.

The changes were enacted after Bhathena used the web page his team initially built to book Covid-19 vaccine appointments for his in-laws a few weeks ago.

He plugged in various Zip codes until he found a CVS location with a slot available. Finally, he identified an opening and the appointment went smoothly. But he knew the scheduling process wasn’t ideal. His team accelerated plans to include the map -- one item on a to-do list of planned improvements.

Pharmacies will play a much larger role in the U.S. vaccination campaign as starting today the federal government will send at least one million doses a week to locations across the country. CVS will receive about 250,000 doses to administer in 11 states through the program, according to the company.

Expanding Sites

The initiative stands to immediately expand the number of sites where vaccines are being administered. Ill-prepared scheduling systems threaten to thwart pharmacies in much the way that they have vexed many private providers and local health departments.

Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.’s vaccine scheduler faltered earlier this week when a crush of people searched for appointments. The drugstore chain’s online system has been refined numerous times while coming under criticism for being overly complex. Walgreens has said it regularly updates its scheduler and is committed to making improvements.

Walmart Inc., The Kroger Co., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Rite Aid Corp. are among the 21 national pharmacies and independent pharmacy networks that are part of the federal program.

The update that CVS made to its vaccine web page has dramatically cut how long people spend on it, Bhathena said. At one point, 40,000 people were in the virtual waiting room despite few slots available. That dropped by a factor of 10 with the new feature, he said.

“As a consumer, you don’t want to be wasting your time trying to schedule appointments in an area where aren’t any available and you could spend three hours and get nowhere,” he said.

Managing thousands of appointments will be no easy task the pharmacy chains involved in the federal program. The two available Covid-19 vaccines require two doses, and providers must ensure people receive both.

A single-dose shot from Johnson & Johnson is on the horizon, pending regulatory clearance, meaning providers soon may have to balance scheduling some people for two shots and others for one. Preparing for that complexity is the main item on Bhathena’s list, he said. He’s also thinking ahead to the day when people may be able to choose which vaccine they want.

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