Exclusive: Walmart expands vaccinations in boost to U.S. COVID-19 program

NEW YORK/ LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Walmart Inc is preparing to offer COVID-19 vaccinations in seven more states, as well as in Chicago and Puerto Rico, this week and next, a company spokeswoman told Reuters, expanding beyond the two states where its pharmacists are offering inoculations.

The move from the world’s largest retailer comes as U.S. President Joe Biden races to accelerate a frustratingly slow vaccination campaign that has stranded about half of 38 million shots in freezers.

This week and next, Walmart will start providing inoculations in Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, South Carolina and Texas as well as in Chicago and Puerto Rico, the spokeswoman said. The shots will only be available to specific populations decided by each state and only at a handful of stores in each state.

Walmart is already vaccinating healthcare workers in New Mexico and its home state of Arkansas.

Alabama’s health officer, Scott Harris, on Thursday said the state would partner with Walmart to provide COVID-19 vaccinations. Walmart confirmed that deal, which falls under a federal partnership that Biden on Thursday said would launch in early February.

Harris said another deal, with a major pharmacy chain, is coming soon.

Walgreens, CVS, Kroger, and Rite Aid have also stepped up to vaccinate Americans in what is the largest and most complex immunization effort in U.S. history. Those shots are needed to help stop the virus, which has killed more than 400,000 and infected more than 24 million people in the United States.

The Trump administration punted vaccine planning to states, which were asked to come up with their own plans, a move that left many pharmacy chains and supermarket-based pharmacies in limbo.

“We’re having to be flexible as we try to operate state-by-state, but we feel like it’s absolutely the right thing to do, to lean into this and help figure it out,” Walmart Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said at the Consumer Electronics Show last week. “That’s the approach that we’re taking.”

He said Walmart is “making sure that we can handle the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine and do so appropriately and safely.”

A spokesperson from the Texas Department of State Health Services said many of Walmart’s pharmacies have enrolled as vaccine providers in the state, but that “only a handful” have received the doses so far due to limited supply. “Once there’s a broader supply and we can regularly start allocating to more pharmacies, they will be included,” the spokesperson said.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson told Reuters it plans to “continue and expand” its existing partnership with Walmart, and that as additional vaccine doses become available, Walmart has agreed to be a key part of its distribution plan.

(Reporting by Melissa Fares in New York and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; editing by Jason Neely and Steve Orlofsky)

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