The COVID-19 pandemic strained our local health care system, leading to shortages in health care staff and medical supplies, and causing many Marylanders to delay routine health services, such as receiving their annual vaccinations. To help combat the pandemic, pharmacists stepped up to administer critical vaccines and became a crucial part of the front-line response as they administered COVID shots to hundreds of thousands of residents. As Maryland families seek to catch up on vaccines delayed due to the pandemic, lawmakers must heed lessons learned from COVID and permanently allow pharmacists to administer lifesaving vaccines.
Maryland is home to over 5,000 pharmacists, who are trusted health care providers within the communities they serve. Pharmacists are often the only health care provider Marylanders see regularly. With nearly 90% of Americans across the country living within 5 miles of a community pharmacy, pharmacists are the most accessible health care professional for Marylanders. Pharmacies also often have longer hours of availability and are open on weekends, making them a flexible and convenient option for residents and families to come in for health care services.
Pharmacists are critical for rural, low-income, and underserved communities across the state. There are 15% more pharmacies than physicians in low-income Maryland communities. For Marylanders across the state who may not be able to travel long distances for their health care, or when a doctor’s office or hospital is far away, patients depend on their local pharmacist for many routine health services. Patients who walk or use public transit to access medical care are less likely to establish routine care and more likely to miss appointments if they have to travel long distances. Just in Montgomery County, 7% of households do not have access to a vehicle, making them less likely to receive routine health services, particularly if transportation is a barrier to care.
Maryland pharmacists have been able to provide vaccines since 2006, and the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act allowed pharmacists to provide support to Maryland families to keep their vaccinations up to date. In April 2021, in line with the PREP Act, Maryland lawmakers empowered local pharmacists to administer vaccines to patients ages 3 to 17 without a prescription, in order to combat the pandemic and increase vaccine access. Pharmacists delivered COVID shots and other essential immunizations to residents to help slow the spread of the pandemic, which was particularly helpful in at-risk communities where local pharmacies often outnumber hospitals or physician’s offices.
However, the emergency orders that gave pharmacists and pharmacy technicians the ability to vaccinate are set to expire. Pharmacists and technicians now could lose the ability to administer certain vaccines to patients ages 3 to 17. Maryland legislators must take action and continue allowing trained pharmacists and technicians to administer all FDA-approved vaccines to protect public health and mitigate future outbreaks of communicable diseases. Nationwide, two out of every three COVID-19 vaccines were provided by pharmacists. Pharmacists were integral in our fight against the pandemic. They are medication experts who have extensive education and experience in vaccine administration for different ages, CPR and addressing any allergic reactions. We can help continue protecting our communities from easily spreadable illnesses with support from our lawmakers.
Maryland policymakers are considering legislation — Senate Bill 372 and House Bill 1232 — that would permanently allow pharmacists to administer all FDA-authorized vaccines, like COVID-19 boosters and flu shots, to all Marylanders aged 3 and up with parental or guardian consent. In addition, pharmacists will be required to inform parents of the importance of a well-child visit with a pediatric primary care physician and refer families to a provider when necessary. These bills are crucial to maintaining access to care for Marylanders across the state and will help support strong public health.
We have all seen just how quickly a communicable disease can spread across our communities. Maryland should not take steps backward on the progress made to make health care more accessible for families. Senate Bill 372 and House Bill 1232 are vital to ensuring Marylanders get the immunizations they need when they need them. Allowing pharmacists to continue administering vaccines is one easy step to making health care more accessible in Maryland.
Deanna Tran (email@example.com) is the president of the Maryland Pharmacists Association, and Aliyah N. Horton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is its executive director.