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Pharmacists are hot commodity as U.S. ramps up COVID-19 vaccine rollout

COVID-19 vaccines being sent to pharmacies
COVID-19 vaccines being sent to pharmacies 06:48

The urgent need to administer COVID-19 vaccines across the U.S. is stoking demand for another suddenly hot commodity: pharmacists.

The federal government this week began shipping vaccines to drugstores around the country as part of an effort to jump-start immunizations. As a result, pharmacies are adding pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and other support staff to deal with patients, manage vaccine supplies and give shots. Some employers are even offering five-figure sign-on bonuses for pharmacy students even before they complete their studies.

"Over the last five to six years, the market was saturated with pharmacists and good job opportunities were few," said Micheal Hogue, dean of the Loma Linda University School of Pharmacy. "Today, I'm very aware of regional and national chains that are hiring pharmacy students and pharmacists as rapidly as they can to meet the demands of the COVID vaccination efforts."

Scott Knoer, CEO of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), also pointed to the surging job opportunities for pharmacy students. 

"It used to be kind of hard to get a job in pharmacy. Now, it's changed because of COVID, and pharmacists are literally saving the world through vaccination," he told CBS MoneyWatch. 

Vaccine demand outpacing supply 09:55

Pharmacy job listings are up 35% compared to a year ago, with major chains and independent pharmacies alike ramping up hiring as Americans scramble to secure appointments. CVS Health, the country's largest pharmacy chain with 10,000 stores across the U.S., in October announced it would fill 15,000 new jobs, including 10,000 pharmacy technician positions, to help respond to the pandemic. 

Walgreens, the second-largest U.S. pharmacy chain, with more than 9,000 retail locations, is also hiring fast. It has filled 7,500 of 9,000 newly created pharmacy roles to help with COVID-19 testing and vaccine shots. It is also training existing staff to administer the vaccine, and aims to have trained 45,000 team members, including 30,000 pharmacists and 15,000 pharmacy techs by mid-February, said Rina Shah, vice president of Walgreens pharmacy operations, in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.

The chain is also hiring an additional 25,000 staffers who are vital in supporting pharmacists and technicians. 

New rule is a "game-changer"

A flier distributed by CVS Health indicates the company is also offering "Hero Pay" to pharmacy teams administering the COVID-19 vaccine. A spokesperson for the company said it would continue to hire staff to meet demand as the pandemic persists. 

Most pharmacists are trained and licensed to give immunizations once they earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree. But a rule change issued by the Trump administration in October also allows pharmacy techs, who don't require a Pharm.D. degree, to complete a training course to administer COVID-19 vaccines under the guidance of a fully licensed pharmacist.

The change allows pharmacists to delegate the task of giving a shot to a technician, freeing them up to perform other tasks. Pharmacists remain responsible for verifying that the vaccine is appropriate for the patient and that it's drawn up correctly. 

"In the pharmacy workflow, immunizations are such a bottleneck at times because as a pharmacist you have to step out of everything you're doing to do give the patient a shot. To have a technician do this is a game-changer in pharmacy practice," said Kim McKeirnan, associate professor of Pharmacotherapy at Washington State University College of Pharmacy and the author of the school's pharmacy technician training program.

Five-figure bonuses

Beginning in December, Washington State University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences began receiving an influx of requests for pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to help with COVID-19 vaccinations, according to Linda Garrelts MacLean, vice dean of external relations for the Washington State University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

An internal job board features a flier from Walgreens advertising sign-on bonuses of up to $10,000 for pharmacists and $500 for technicians. Other chains are offering up to $20,000, a pharmacy school administrator said.

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Walgreens is offering up to $10,000 in signing bonuses for pharmacists, as it seeks professionals who are qualified to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. Courtesy of WSU College of Pharmacy

Breanna Byrne, a fourth-year student at WSU's pharmacy school, is positive about her job prospects. She has already completed the coursework that allows her to administer the COVID-19 vaccine, and works at Fred Meyer pharmacy on weekends, where she earns $23 an hour as an intern.  

"They offered me an intern position to help with the flu season and now that is carrying forward into vaccinating for COVID," Byrne told CBS MoneyWatch.

Her fiance, Jeff Gist, also a fourth-year student at WSU, recently landed an internship at Walgreens to help with vaccinations. "They said once I graduate in May, it will turn into a full-time position. I'm sure we'll be administering plenty of vaccinations," he said. 

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The pandemic is highlighting pharmacists' wide-ranging skills, putting them on the front lines against COVID-19.

"Pharmacy as a profession has been working very diligently to make sure their value is understood and this particular situation simply highlights the value the pharmacist brings in the community and on the team," said Garrelts MacLean of WSU.

Industry professionals say pharmacists are ready for what is an unprecedented public health challenge. 

"This is pharmacists' 9/11. In the beginning, we didn't have any protection: No PPE, no masks, no plexiglass. Pharmacists went to work, they served their community and they're doing it now. Usually pharmacists are in the background, but now we're right up there," Knoer said.

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