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Walmart steps up to vaccine fight in small town America

“There may not be other options for them to get a vaccine,” said Walmart's U.S. CEO of people in underserved areas.
Image: A person waits at a Walmart Pharmacy where the Moderna vaccine is available as Walmart and other major U.S. pharmacies take part in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, to increase vaccinations in the U.S. in West Haven, Conn.
Adding Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, to the federal vaccine distribution network adds significant capacity and reach.Mike Segar / Reuters file

Walmart is leveraging its ubiquity and logistical know-how to become a major player in the national vaccine rollout, offering vaccinations across its roughly 5,000 Walmart and Sam’s club stores.

Nearly 20,000 pharmacists nationwide are set to give millions of coronavirus vaccinations per month — if there are doses available.

The initial phase of vaccine distribution has been stuttered, marked by limited availability, poor communication, supply chain snafus, and appointment websites crashing under a flood of signups.

“It’s going take all of us to make this happen as quickly as possible. But it's important for the country and the economy that this happens,” John Furner, president and CEO of Walmart U.S., said in an exclusive interview for NBC's "TODAY" show.

“So we're going to do our part. And we hope to get to 10 to 13 million as quickly as we can. It's really based on the supply at this point,” Furner said, in an interview that aired Friday.

Experts say adding Walmart, the country’s largest retailer and private employer, to the federal vaccine distribution network adds significant capacity, experience and reach, especially to some areas that have been hard hit by the pandemic.

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“Adding any highly experienced distributor who has the talent to provide administration of vaccines is a big plus in my view,” Thomas Denny, a medical professor and chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, said in an email. “Having the ability to do it in rural areas of the U.S. where Walmart has infrastructure to support the work is a bigger plus.”

Vaccine distribution researcher Julie Swann, head of the Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University, said: “Rural areas have a relatively high caseload, so this may help in those communities."

As Walmart expanded over the years, it has drawn scrutiny over where and how it chooses new store locations, with openings met by both local welcome and pushback. One published study found that it first targets areas with lower income and lower population density.

Those locations tend to overlap with federally designated medically underserved areas, with over 4,000 of the company’s 5,000-plus Walmart and Sam’s Club stores falling in those zones.

“Walmart has such an amazing footprint,” said Furner, with 90 percent of the country living within 10 miles of one of his company’s stores.

The store is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to analyze data, and its federal vaccine allocations are tagged to go to customers with limited local health care access, he said.

“There may not be other options for them to get a vaccine,” Furner said. “We can play a really important role for communities that may not have just an easy path to find someone that can help them get an vaccine administered.”

“There may not be other options for [some people] to get a vaccine.”

“It provides some hope for those getting it that there's light at the end of the tunnel,” Furner said, adding that one customer told him how vaccination represented "her path to seeing her grandkids again.”

Since the program's launch on Feb. 12, Walmart has given about half a million doses, Furner said.

The company currently has stores in 22 states working with the federal program that ships vaccines directly to retail pharmacies from manufacturers, whereas the initial phase launched under the Trump administration only shipped vaccines to states, which struggled to execute the complex distribution process. Stores in 13 states are working with the state programs, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. This week, the company is also launching 43 community vaccination events in 28 states.

There are signs of growing pains, but the retail giant is ramping up quickly to meet demand.

When the federal program first launched, Walmart’s booking website crashed for several locations in the country, an issue that repeated itself at other retail pharmacy websites. Walmart says the booking website is now running up to speed.

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Every retail pharmacy wants to be part of the national mobilization effort, said Roberta Clarke, associate professor emeritus of marketing at Boston University and an expert in medical marketing. While the public health mission is priority number one, she said, “that does not preclude other motivations layered on top of the public health imperative."

“By engaging in vaccine distribution, these chains brand themselves as good citizens at a time when good citizenship matters,” Clarke said. “Any time the pharmacy can get a customer in the door, it becomes a chance to sell the customer additional items.”

America can’t get back to business until it beats the pandemic, and right now that hinges on getting as many people vaccinated as possible — a bottom-line truth that Walmart knows well.

“If things continue to improve, the vaccine rollout continues, people start to come back out, people will come back to Walmart that may have been shopping locally because they were trying to manage the Covid situation carefully,” Walmart Inc. CEO Doug McMillon said during a recent earnings call.