Pharmacies prepare to face the Phase 1B vaccine rush in Arkansas

It’s still weeks away, so some private drug stores are renovating and others are taking reservations.

HOT SPRINGS VILLAGE, Ark. — As more and more first responders get their coronavirus vaccines in the Phase 1A portion of the rollout, the pharmacies that will be counted on to broaden the number of people getting shots are preparing for an expected rush.

“I would like to be first in line, if possible. I’m 72 years old and I think I need to take the vaccine,” said Robert Fry, who went to East Gate Pharmacy Thursday looking to determine when he could possibly get a shot. “They told me how to get on their waiting list.”

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East Gate’s phones have been ringing non-stop, and a recorded greeting instructs callers to sign up for the company’s online waiting list. A person behind the counter walked Fry through that process and assured him it would work for the pharmacy’s other two branches.

Down Highway 5 in Benton, pharmacists are delivering vaccine from the ultra- cold storage at West Side Pharmacy while workers lay flooring in another part of the building to get ready.

“Right now we are remodeling a space in the pharmacy to prep for multiple people to be able to come in and get vaccinated,” said Dr. Zack Haley, the pharmacist-in-charge and co-owner of West Side. “We’re thrilled with the opportunity to provide this vaccine. Obviously, it’s something the entire world is dealing with.”

Phones at West Side are also buzzing with questions about when shots will be available. Haley and his partners have been watching the lines and seeming disorganization in other parts of the country as states entered phases using different approaches. They feel sure they can handle what’s coming.

“We feel confident in our ability at our pharmacy to do our jobs to not only vaccinate our patients and members of our community, but do it in an organized way,” Dr. Haley said.

With that in mind, West Side will have an online platform where people can reserve times to get shots rather than a waiting list or first-come-first-served.

“We can schedule these appointments on an individual basis where they would come here to the pharmacy,” he said. “We would have time blocked off for them to come in and do everything.”

Haley and colleagues still don’t know how many doses they will get, so they don’t know how many appointments they can open and how quickly they will be taken up.

That uncertainly is one reason Fry chose to venture out Thursday to get answers.

“I do want to get it and I’m just looking for options for how I’m supposed to get it,” he said after checking with drug stores in Hot Springs and national chains. “That’s where I’m at.”

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Plans for a public backstop to the private pharmacy rollout of Phase 1B brought members of the National Guard, emergency managers, and the Dept. of Health together Thursday and Friday to answer a call from Governor Asa Hutchinson. They promised details next week. Health department leaders expect Arkansas to enter Phase 1B as early as the start of February.