Jan 23, 2021 12:00 PM

Kan. pharmacies hire, train more workers to speed vaccine rollout

Posted Jan 23, 2021 12:00 PM
New federal rules aim to help pharmacies give the COVID-19 vaccine to more people faster. Carlos Moreno / KCUR
New federal rules aim to help pharmacies give the COVID-19 vaccine to more people faster. Carlos Moreno / KCUR

By CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN
Kansas News Service

Hundreds, potentially thousands, of pharmacy workers could inject vaccines into the arms of Kansans in the coming months.

New rules, at least for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, now let an additional class of workers vaccinate more people faster.

Pharmacists could already give shots. But in Kansas, the pharmacy technicians that work alongside them couldn’t.

That changed in the fall with new federal regulations that let technicians give vaccinations. A few states already allowed that before the pandemic, but many pharmacists across the country saw the expanding role of techs as a threat to their jobs.

As supplies of coronavirus vaccine increase, Kansas counts on pharmacies to help get it to the broader public. For now, the state remains in Phase One of distribution, focused on health care workers and nursing home residents. Drug stores still don’t know when they will receive vaccine stock.

Expanding role for techs

Pharmacy techs help manage inventory, fill pill bottles, unpack orders, schedule appointments.

Their role has come to involve more training and more tasks over the years. In 2017, a few dozen technicians in Idaho became the first in the country to start giving vaccines. Within half a year they gave 1,000 shots.

By the time the pandemic hit, a handful of states had followed Idaho’s path. The goal was to free up pharmacists from some of their most routine tasks.

Pharmacists in the retail world are notoriously busy. They struggle to find time for the kind of conversations with patients that can tease out important health issues before they escalate. In the worst cases, an investigation by The New York Times found, excessive workloads can lead to prescription-filling errors.

By contrast, pharmacists with more time have more conversations with patients. That’s when they could learn that a medication has one of their customers feeling dizzy, and that another one hasn’t gotten his pneumonia shot yet.

“If you look at your average pharmacist” in retail, Washington State University pharmacotherapy professor Kimberly McKeirnan said, “they’re using such a small portion of the education that they have.”

McKeirnan developed the training for the first technicians in Idaho to give immunizations. That led later to a nationally recognized certification program.

Job market changes

The idea has stoked controversy. In recent years, the increasing ranks of newly minted pharmacists compared to shrinking job opportunities for them alarmed many in the field.

They warned of the toll it would take on career and salary prospects for people who spent years in graduate school incurring hefty student debts.

Some pharmacists worried that simultaneously expanding the role of technicians could take the pressure off retailers to hire more pharmacists, whose salaries can cost more than three times as much. Others embraced the help of technicians with extra training as valuable support.

McKeirnan notes that technicians must work alongside pharmacists, who remain the clinical experts. For pharmacists, she sees a chance to get the time they need to work with customers at length. For technicians, she sees a door to growth and higher pay.

“They kind of hit a pay ceiling often at some point,” she said. “And then, maybe with the exception of just general cost of living adjustments, there’s not room to advance.”

In Kansas, the average technician’s pay comes out to about $34,000 a year.

It remains unclear, though, whether pharmacies in Kansas and elsewhere will raise the pay for technicians who complete training to give shots or do other new tasks.

CVS Health, for example, hasn’t committed to raising the pay of its technicians who join the massive immunization effort. That company says nearly 10,000 of its technicians have started or completed the training.

Preparing for the rollout

That includes more than 50 pharmacy techs for CVS in Kansas, where the chain operates about as many stores.

In Lawrence, technician Shawn Yang jumped at the chance to help administer the shots that could help stop this pandemic.

“It was an easy decision,” said Yang, who has worked for CVS for six years. “I definitely wanted to get vaccine-certified.”

The store where he works already gets loads of phone calls from people wondering how and when they can get immunized.

Yang sees a chance to help in a way that was previously closed to him. He is working through an American Pharmacists Association program that trains techs to give shots with pharmacist supervision.

Nate Burrell, a CVS pharmacist who oversees the pharmacy teams at 18 stores in Kansas and Missouri, wants at least two workers with the extra training at each of those sites.

“We know that they’re going to really be a huge asset,” Burrell said.

Drug stores have been on a hiring spree for months, snapping up more pharmacists, nurses and technicians as coronavirus testing rolled out, flu season arrived and clinical trials on COVID-19 vaccines progressed.

Extra hands proved even more important when the federal government turned to pharmacies — primarily Walgreens and CVS — to send vaccination teams into nursing homes, an effort that started last month (and that some say has moved too slowly).

In October, CVS alone said it needed an extra 10,000 pharmacy technicians nationwide. That hiring continues.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at [email protected]