WOONSOCKET, R.I. — Americans seeking the latest COVID-19 vaccines are facing higher-than-expected demand, supply delays, canceled appointments by retail pharmacy chains, and headaches with insurance companies.
Millions of the newly formulated vaccines have shipped out since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off on them earlier this month for ages 6 months and up. Cases started rising again in late summer, and experts hope the new shots will help protect people during the fall’s respiratory virus season.
But some people have had to cancel appointments because they received communication from their insurance companies that they would have to pay up to $200 per shot out of pocket. Others have reported arriving to retail pharmacies for their appointment only to have them canceled due to the lack of supply.
Retail pharmacies, such as Woonsocket-based CVS or Walgreens, had to purchase COVID-19 vaccines privately from the manufacturers, said Rhode Island Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken, and it’s resulted in some “workflow issues” that he said the state has seen impact some Rhode Islanders.
CVS has been receiving the updated vaccine on a “rolling basis,” said corporate spokesman Matt Blanchette. He explained while the majority of its retail pharmacies have been able to honor scheduled appointments, delivery delays to select stores have forced the company to reschedule appointments. “We’ll continue to offer additional appointments at those locations as supply is received,” he told the Globe in an email.
In contrast, Walgreens temporarily paused online appointment scheduling over the weekend and apologized for the inconvenience canceled appointments caused customers.
According to CDC Director Dr. Mandy K. Cohen, it’s the first time the federal government is leaving purchasing to the private market since the pandemic began, which is similar to how the flu vaccine is distributed. Some insurers are still updating their billing systems to cover the vaccines, according to news reports.
“It’s important to know that there is vaccine available,” Cohen said in a video posted on social media last week. “You will be able to get one. And it should be free for you — whether or not you have insurance.”
“It’s great that people are excited to get the vaccine,” added Cohen. “If you’ve had a problem finding the vaccine, stick with it. More vaccine is on the way.”
We’ve heard that people in some areas have had issues getting the #COVID19 vaccine. CDC is in close contact with the manufacturers + pharmacies as they get more vaccine delivered.— CDC (@CDCgov) September 22, 2023
If you’ve had a problem finding the vaccine, stick with it—more is on the way! pic.twitter.com/0PGPHEGngD
States like Rhode Island have a program of providing vaccines to primary care providers, pharmacies, health centers, and other sites at no charge, said Wendelken. The program is broader than just the COVID vaccine, but is for “all routinely recommended vaccines,” he explained.
“As a condition of participation in this program, healthcare providers are not permitted to charge patients for the vaccine,” said Wendelken. The COVID vaccine through the state program started arriving at sites midweek last week. Appointments are being made for that vaccine now, and doses are starting to be administered. As of Monday afternoon, there have been 14,522 doses of the new COVID-19 vaccine administered in Rhode Island — which is likely an undercount, Wendelken said.
To avoid any insurance-related headaches, Cohen advised those getting vaccinated at their local retail pharmacy to confirm their details before heading to an appointment, including whether their pharmacy is “in network” with their insurance plan.
Moderna and Pfizer representatives told The Associated Press that they have enough supply. Spokespeople said that Pfizer isn’t experiencing any shortages and that it has “shipped and delivered several million doses of its 2023-2024 COVID-19 vaccine.” Moderna had 6 million available Thursday, vice president of communications Chris Ridley said.
On Friday, President Joe Biden received an updated COVID-19 shot, along with his annual influenza vaccine.
“As we enter the cold and flu season, the President encourages all Americans to follow his example and to check with their healthcare provider or pharmacist to assure that they are fully vaccinated,” Kevin O’Connor, physician to the president, wrote in a letter.
Last week, the Biden administration said it would award $600 million to 12 American-based companies that produce COVID tests, which will once again be made available for free. As of Monday, people can order four tests per household online through COVIDtests.gov. Those without an internet connection can call 1-800-232-0233 to request their tests.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.