Supermarkets forced to cancel their seasonal flu shot clinics due to vaccine shortages are resorting to alternative measures that include advice, recommendations and education.
For companies with popular annual clinics, the cancellations are hindering traditionally strong outreach programs that feature the supermarket pharmacy.
“We're just waiting to find out when — and if — the [vaccines] become available again, and at that time we would resume our flu clinic schedule,” said Karen Meleta, spokeswoman for ShopRite, the retail division of Wakefern Food Corp., Keasbey, N.J. “But at this point we have not received any further word, and we are advising our customers to see their personal care provider.”
ShopRite was able to complete just over half of its scheduled immunization events. According to Meleta, 254 of some 460 clinics were held before its service provider, Maxim Healthcare, announced it was unable to secure any more seasonal flu vaccine from manufacturers.
“One manufacturer did not get us our product, and one of them is experiencing a delay, and we have not received all of our product,” said Steve Pellito, national wellness director for Columbia, Md.-based Maxim. The firm, the largest flu shot provider in the nation, services ShopRite, as well as more than 50 other supermarket retailers around the country. All have been impacted by the lack of seasonal flu vaccines.
Industry observers said the timing is unfortunate. While the 2004 vaccine shortage — when unsanitary plant conditions forced Chiron, one of the world's largest vaccine producers, to shut down — was considered more dire, this year many retailers were hoping to use their clinics as a springboard for their ever-expanding pharmacy and wellness operations. Many chains developed wide-ranging promotions to get people into stores. In some cases, they took the extra step of having in-store pharmacists certified to administer injections, rather than relying on a third-party service provider, giving retailers more direct face time with their customers.
“Many retail pharmacy operations came up with the notion that they were going to lead with the flu for their primary promotional efforts to build pharmacy awareness this year,” said Bruce Kneeland, a pharmacy consultant based in Valley Forge, Pa.
Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., is one such chain that has taken significant steps to integrate pharmacy into the rest of its wellness services platform. It's promoting OTC flu prevention and treatment products with extensive couponing, and offering immunization by pharmacy personnel on a walk-in or by-appointment basis.
Safeway did not respond to SN's request for an interview, but a pharmacy staffer at a Vons pharmacy in Orange, Calif., stated by phone they were out of seasonal flu vaccine and did not know when any would be available, if at all.
This year, the situation has been complicated by the publicity surrounding the H1N1 virus, which is an entirely different organism, with a separate treatment schedule. Here, the federal government is controlling distribution of the vaccine, which is also in short supply right now. Officials anticipate more vaccine for H1N1 will become available in November and December — giving rise to hopes that supermarkets will be able to redeem some customer patronage by hosting clinics to administer those shots.
“I think you will see more of our stores get involved in the distribution of H1N1 as we move more towards November and December, as more vaccinations become available,” noted Cathy Polley, vice president of pharmacy services for the Food Marketing Institute, Washington.