Using the vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTechWalgreens has inoculated hundreds of thousands of Americans against Covid-19 this year. But the pharmacy chain has not been following guidance from federal health officials concerning the timing of second doses.
The guidelines require two doses, three weeks apart. Walgreens, however, separated them by four weeks because it was faster and simpler for the company to schedule appointments.
There is no evidence that separating the doses by an extra week decreases the vaccine’s effectiveness. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a three-week gap, the agency says it is acceptable to separate the doses by up to six weeks if necessary.
Walgreens’s decision, however, was never announced publicly and caused confusion for some customers. It also caught the attention of federal health officials. This decision was never announced publicly. Kate Grusich, a spokeswoman for the C.D.C., said the agency asked Walgreens to stop using a longer-than-recommended period between doses.
The company’s vaccine-scheduling system schedules all second doses four weeks after the first, by default. Doses of Moderna’s vaccine, which Walgreens is also administering, are supposed to be spaced four weeks apart, so using the same gap for both vaccines was “the easiest way to stand up the process based on our capabilities at the time,” Dr. Kevin Ban, Walgreens’ chief medical officer, said in an interview.
Walgreens is currently changing its system. Beginning as soon as the end of the week, the pharmacy will automatically schedule people for Pfizer doses three weeks apart, Dr. Ban said.
Walgreens is one of the largest drugstore and grocery store chains that are giving out vaccines allocated by states and via a federal program that the White House said last week would expand to 40,000 locations. Walgreens reported last week that it had given out more than eight million Covid vaccine doses, including four million in March, and expects to give out 26 million to 34 million before the end of August.
Walgreens, along with CVS, previously led an effort to vaccinate nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. The Pfizer doses at those facilities followed CDC guidelines and were spaced three weeks apart.
The vaccination campaign is a business opportunity for Walgreens. It brings in revenue from administering the vaccine from fees paid by the government and private payers as well as from purchases made by shoppers coming in for vaccines. Additionally, it helps their business database by requiring people to create a Walgreens account to search online for a vaccine appointment.
Most of the other major pharmacies, including CVS and Rite Aid, have been adhering to the C.D.C.’s guidance on the timing of second doses. CVS, for example, schedules second Pfizer shots for 20 to 23 days after the first shot, said T.J. Crawford, a spokesman for the chain.
Some public health experts believe the United States should delay the second dose of the vaccines by longer than what Walgreens has been doing with the Pfizer vaccine. It could allow more people to get partial protection through the first shots. Britain, for example, is delaying second shots by up to three months. Canada has begun delaying doses by up to four months.