CVS Health Corp. is becoming a haven for people desperate for a second vaccine dose, helping the pharmacy chain scoop up more customers in the race to inoculate America against covid-19.
The vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna require two doses, and both are generally given in the same location. But some people who have received a first dose have been left searching for a second, and that’s created an opening for one of the U.S.’s largest drugstore companies.
CVS has limited availability for those seeking second shots only, spokesman T.J. Crawford said. Nearly 90% of the second doses the company administers come from the original booking, which requires both shots to be scheduled, he said. However, the drugstore chain will accommodate anyone who is eligible for a second shot, regardless of where the first dose was given. A vaccination card is required for verification.
It isn’t clear exactly how many people are getting vaccinated at two different places. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention isn’t collecting that data, spokeswoman Kate Grusich said. The agency does ask pharmacies participating in a federal immunization program, including CVS, to prioritize completing a vaccination series even if that individual didn’t receive their first dose at that store, she said.
A note on CVS’s vaccine webpage reads, “If you only need to schedule a second dose because you’ve already received the first dose, we can help you complete your vaccine.” The link leads to a scheduling tool that asks when a visitor received their first dose and which vaccine they need, and allows them to search by ZIP code for appointments nearby.
By trying to become a go-to choice for people struggling to complete a two-dose series, CVS is wagering that it can reach more new customers as the chain and its rivals take part in the nation’s sprawling immunization campaign. The company is paid by insurers and the government for the shots it administers.
Since the start of the vaccine rollout, people in search of shots have surfaced at drugstores and other vaccination sites, hoping to capitalize on wasted and leftover doses that providers must use before they spoil. Others have combed the internet for open appointments. But for people who have been able to secure last-minute access, assuring they’ll get the second shot needed to be fully vaccinated has been spotty.
Lauren Bacho drove about four hours to a mass-vaccination site in Cincinnati last month from Cleveland when she heard it had open appointments. Two weeks later, she tried scheduling her second dose with Kroger Co., which ran the clinic, only to find a message telling her it was too soon.
She kept checking and the message never changed. The phone number she found wasn’t any help. (A Kroger spokesperson said the company works “diligently to increase appointment availability as vaccine supply arrives in our pharmacies.”)
Panicked, Bacho called for help on Twitter. A tipster told her to try CVS.
“That was news to us because at first we thought should we call hospitals. Doctor’s offices? Where to get just your second shot, that information is not readily available. You wouldn’t think you would need that information,” said Bacho, a 25-year-old baseball photographer.
Armed with a list of ZIP codes in Ohio, she searched CVS’s website until she found a slot less than an hour drive from Cleveland. Her appointment is scheduled for Saturday, almost exactly on schedule. The CDC recommends people get their second Pfizer dose as close to 21 days later as possible.
That timeline led Cheri Lovell to switch her second dose to CVS from rival Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. When Lovell made her appointment online, Walgreens booked her second dose four weeks later.
Lovell was confused and upset. She knew that was one week later than the CDC recommends. Plus, she already had an infusion scheduled for that day to treat her rheumatoid arthritis. Pharmacy staff told Lovell she couldn’t move her appointment.
“I didn’t feel like that should be Walgreens’ call,” said Lovell, a 60-year-old in Charlotte, North Carolina, who helps nonprofits implement the SalesForce software system. “These days you’re taking whatever you can get and hoping for the best, so I took it because I could go ahead and get it done.”
Lovell saw CVS had started vaccinating in Charlotte and snagged a second dose for exactly three weeks after receiving her first one at Walgreens. She waited until she was inoculated to cancel her reservation at Walgreens.
Walgreens said it is changing its scheduling system to allow for people to schedule a second Pfizer dose three weeks after the first one. Anyone with an existing four-week appointment will be allowed to move their shot up by a week.
“We’re continuing to work on system enhancements to our scheduler, and this week plan to have new functionality in place allowing people to schedule Pfizer second dose appointments within a three-week time frame,” the company said in a statement Thursday.
The second-shot-only option has also attracted people who want to find an option closer to home.
Marci Rozen drove 2½ hours to Salisbury, Maryland, from Washington after reading about open appointments at a mass-vaccination site. Rozen knew from finding shots for family and friends that CVS would let her schedule only her second dose. That night she checked the pharmacy’s website and found a slot at a CVS located 20 minutes from her home.
“The process was super-easy,” said Rozen, a 32-year-old attorney.
User experience will become even more important as supplies increase and people are able to be selective about where they search for shots in the months ahead. CVS may already have an edge.