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How Northland pharmacies are aiding vaccination efforts

Pharmacy students play a critical role in helping small pharmacies rise to the challenge.

Nat Willgohs, pharmacy manager at Thrifty White Pharmacy in Cloquet, said the pharmacy administered 300 Moderna COVID-19 vaccinations the week of February 15. The pharmacy located inside the Super One grocery store has five pharmacists, including Willgohs, who administer the vaccinations to people who qualify and register online. Willgohs said the pharmacy can administer about 60 doses a day. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)

The Thrifty White Pharmacy in Cloquet is one of about 20 Minnesota pharmacies participating in the first phase of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program that launched Feb. 8.

Nat Willgohs, the pharmacy manager at the Cloquet Thrifty White, said that in the first week of appointments, which began Feb. 11, the pharmacy administered 300 Moderna shots.

"The appointments filled up almost instantly. It took a few hours and they were all full," Willgohs said.

The pharmacy is working on hiring nurses to help with the vaccine appointments so they don't affect the rest of its operations.


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Brian Leach injects Tami Susens with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Harmony House in Superior Monday, Jan. 25. (Jed Carlson / 2021 File / Superior Telegram)

"Everything else keeps going even though we're doing all these shots," he said.

Due to a delay in the manufacturing process of the Moderna vaccine the pharmacy is anticipating weekly shipment of about 100 Pfizer-BioNTech for a couple weeks, Willgohs said. The pharmacy is planning to receive its next allocation on Monday, Feb. 22, and will administer those in the following two days.

Recent weather-related shipping delays have also stalled pharmacies from opening up more appointments.

In Minnesota, Walmart and Thrifty White pharmacies are participating in the first phase of the pharmacy pilot program to expand the ways in which people can get vaccinated. The pharmacies are all taking appointments online.

Thrifty White Pharmacy in Cloquet began administering the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in early February to those who qualified and registered online for an appointment. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnew.com)

To find a list of all the places currently offering vaccines and to check for appointment availability visit the state of Minnesota's vaccine finder at mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/find-vaccine/locations/index.jsp . The appointments are open to anyone, regardless of whether or not they're a customer of the pharmacy.


Sarah Derr, executive director of the Minnesota Pharmacists Association, asks that people who don't have access to the internet or know how to navigate it have a family member or friend help. People should only call the pharmacy directly if they can't find any help.

"But realize that we are getting like 1,000 calls a day, which impedes on us getting vaccine out to people, impedes on us getting medications out to people."

Sarah K. Derr

Derr also asks that people not sign up for several waitlists.

The state's goal is for the number of pharmacies participating in the pilot program to soon reach 40. Eventually, Derr said, the state is hoping all pharmacies will offer vaccination appointments. There are 300 pharmacies in the state of Minnesota.

"Understand that we are waiting on allocation and we want to vaccinate," Derr said of pharmacies. "Know that we're doing the best we can. We just don't have enough vaccine to go around at this point."

Roughly 90% of people in the United States live within five miles of a pharmacy, making it a more convenient option for much of the country, Derr said.


The University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy, which is the only pharmacy school in Minnesota, has been aiding in the vaccine rollout in whatever way they can, said Grant Anderson, a professor in the pharmacy school on the Duluth campus.

That includes pharmacy students helping with vaccinations as well as faculty and students educating and addressing the different barriers presented during the vaccine rollout, such as who's being left behind and why.

"The ability to register to become vaccinated relies on the internet," Anderson said. "And many of these folks don't use the internet. Many of these folks don't have cellphones. They rely on landlines, they rely on personal communication."

Grant Anderson mug
Grant Anderson

"If you have the means, if you can drive, have a car, you have internet, you're savvy to it, you have good health care, you're old, you're likely to get vaccinated. You're going to be able to manage the system," he said.

Public health, health care and pharmacies are aware of this problem and working "tremendously" hard to come up with answers, Anderson said, adding that it's going to be difficult and require Congress to pass legislation to pay for it.

Any U of M pharmacy student who has completed their second year in the program is trained to vaccinate and help in the efforts. Helping in vaccination efforts isn't anything new for pharmacy students, said Tim Stratton, also a professor in the U of M College of Pharmacy, Duluth campus.

This year, however, he had students contacting him in June asking how they could help.

"Now it's show time," Stratton said. "Here in the first two weeks of February we've had students go as far south as Rochester to help. They've been out to Brainerd. … Many times the students have 48 hours notice which makes it really challenging but our student leaders have been incredible at recruiting students on very short notice."

Timothy Stratton mug
Timothy Stratton

Student help is critical as pharmacies rise to the challenge of vaccinating the public with limited staff who also have to keep the rest of the pharmacy operation going. Stratton, who's licensed as a pharmacist in four states, says he's getting requests from people in the other states to come back and help.

Many hospital and clinic pharmacists, like Tawny Olson at St. Luke's in Duluth, are working outside their normal jobs to help vaccinate.

On top of a 40-hour work week Olson said she spends between 10-20 hours administering vaccines at the St. Luke's vaccine clinic.

"I do it because it brings me hope," Olson said. "Just being able to participate in the vaccination efforts, it's an honor to me."

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