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Rite Aid CEO: Our vaccine rollout was much bigger than expected

·Writer
·4-min read
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When Rite Aid (RAD) stepped up to help distribute coronavirus vaccines as part of the nationwide rollout, the demand was overwhelming. 

“We never thought we would get inundated with people trying to get a vaccine,” Rite Aid CEO Heyward Donigan said in a discussion panel moderated by Yahoo Finance Editor in Chief Andy Serwer as part of the Milken Institute’s Future of Health Summit. The panel also featured Medtronic (MDT) CEO Geoff Martha and Labcorp (LH) CEO Adam Schechter.

"There was no battle for turf” between the different drugstore chains like CVS (CVS), Walgreens (WBA), and Rite Aid, Donigan added. “It was just all-hands-on-deck with the labs and anybody else that you could get to help you because at this point, you're not trying to save the company, you're trying to save the world.”

Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf, center, accompanied by, Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller, left, and Rite-Aid Chief Pharmacy Officer Jocelyn Konrad, speaks outside a Rite-Aid pharmacy in Steelton, Pa., that is administering COVID-19 vaccinations, Friday, March 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf speaks outside a Rite-Aid pharmacy in Steelton, Pa., that is administering COVID-19 vaccinations, Friday, March 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

According to Donigan, one of the biggest challenges Rite Aid faced in meeting the unprecedented demand for the COVID-19 vaccine was creating an appointment scheduling platform. It was especially difficult for certain jurisdictions like Pennsylvania, which did not have scheduling tools for vaccines.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, patients could walk in to receive vaccines for shingles or pneumonia, or get a flu or strep test. However, this all changed over the past year and a half when Rite Aid realized the need for an effective scheduling system that allows patients to book their own appointments.

“We developed, in partnership with many of these different jurisdictions, our own scheduling tool, and that was pretty intense,” Donigan said. “You wouldn't think it would be that intense, but it actually has taken us many months to get this tool up and running in a way that is really user-friendly.”

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Adapting to the pandemic 

Even before the onset of the pandemic, Donigan said that Rite Aid already placed a “significant emphasis” on incorporating digital technology into the customer experience. She cited Rite Aid’s mobile app, new website, and new digital experiences for its pharmacy benefit management (PBM) business, in which Rite Aid serves as a Medicare Part D insurance company that covers prescriptions for seniors.

And in addition to its pharmacy business and PBM company, Rite Aid also has a significant amount of front-end retail business. She stated that the pandemic pushed the company towards improving their e-commerce fulfillment capabilities, an area in which they were lagging behind prior to the pandemic.

“Our digital capabilities were accelerated significantly during the pandemic,” Donigan said. “We're actually pretty fortunate in that we were able to respond as quickly and take advantage of these 180% growth rates that many [retailers] saw in the digital space.”

Reading, PA - April 12: Pharmacist Dr. Uyen Ngo with some syringes ready to administer doeses of COVID-19 vaccine. At Alvernia University in Reading, PA Monday morning April 12, 2021 where the school, working with Rite Aid Pharmacy, held a COVID-19 vaccination clinic administering doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for staff and students in the Physical Education Center. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
Rite Aid pharmacist Dr. Uyen Ngo with some syringes ready to administer doses of COVID-19 vaccine on April 12, 2021. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

The pandemic also forced Rite Aid to shift its clinic staff to be able to fulfill telehealth consultation roles in a very short time frame, Donigan said. She emphasized Rite Aid’s pharmacists roles as being the main facilitators between patients and health systems. 

Although Rite Aid is incorporating telehealth in its in-store consultation and new virtual care rooms, Donigan noted that telehealth will not become a main component of the drugstore chain’s business.

“Going forward, we're focused exclusively on our pharmacy,” Donigan said. “And so we are in the process of considering a launch of a teleRX business where [patients can] do telepharmacy consults with a provider who can then prescribe a prescription that can get filled in our stores.”

Donigan also emphasized that Rite Aid was not acquired by Walgreens, and still remains an independent, publicly-traded organization. However, she stated that the company did sell some stores to Walgreens, which is reflected in Rite Aid’s $25 billion projected annual revenue this year.

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