The COVID-19 pandemic has placed an unprecedented strain on the health care system in Maryland, which has led to decreased access to health care for many patients and their families. Maryland pharmacists – who are already trusted resources in their local communities – have been a critical part of the frontline response to the pandemic and have stepped up to help ease the burden to the system.
But there is more that can be done to further empower pharmacists to improve access to care for patients in our state. To help combat the pandemic and future public health crises, legislators should support House Bill 1040 and Senate Bill 736 to expand pharmacist immunization authority to include the administration of all U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines.
The pandemic has limited access to routine health care for many across Maryland, especially the 150,000 Maryland residents living in rural communities who have long had less access to medical providers. However, there are more than 1,100 pharmacies and nearly 3,300 pharmacists licensed in the state of Maryland who can provide the necessary care that Maryland patients need. Expanding pharmacist vaccination authority would increase options for patients to receive recommended immunizations in safe medical settings.
For patients without a primary care provider or living in medically underserved areas, community pharmacies are generally more accessible to provide health services like immunizations. Pharmacies have more flexible and convenient hours of operation and provide Marylanders with additional options for receiving immunizations. A 2017 survey showed that a majority of Americans prefer to receive their immunizations at a pharmacy, in large part due the added flexibility that pharmacy hours offer.
Maryland community pharmacies are also critical to keeping children up to date on recommended vaccines. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45.1% of Maryland children do not have an established medical home where they are able to receive regular health care, including immunizations.
Additionally, childhood immunization rates decreased last year as a direct result of the pandemic. Allowing pharmacists to provide immunizations to anyone 3 and older will assist health care providers across the state who are working to catch up children who are behind on their recommended immunizations and would help improve childhood vaccination rates
Increasing access to FDA-approved immunizations is especially critical amidst the pandemic as Maryland residents, especially those in minority communities, continue struggling to access the COVID-19 vaccine. While 30% of Maryland’s population is Black, only about 15% of those receiving the vaccine are Black. While some of the access issues are due to supply problems, allowing pharmacists to administer the vaccines could help to increase immunization rates among minority populations most at risk for COVID-19.
While expanding pharmacist vaccination authority is critical for the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, beyond the pandemic, it will also improve accessibility to protect Maryland residents from vaccine-preventable illnesses like the flu, measles and hepatitis. That’s why Del. Ariana Kelly and Sen. Malcolm Augustine introduced HB1040 and SB736 to allow Maryland pharmacists to administer all FDA-approved vaccinations to patients 3 and older.
Pharmacists already play an important role in vaccinating Maryland residents against preventable illness, administering nearly 1.3 million vaccines between 2018 and 2020. As we work to promote public health, combat the COVID-19 pandemic and protect Maryland’s vulnerable communities, we must further empower pharmacists to provide additional critical care to our families.
Expanding pharmacist vaccination authority by passing HB1040 and SB736 is a critical step toward protecting the health and safety of all Marylanders.
— CAILEY LOCKLAIR
The writer is president of the Maryland Retailers Association and Maryland Chain Drug Store Association.