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

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

FILE PHOTO: The logo of a Walmart Superstore is seen during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Rosemead, California, U.S., June 11, 2020. Picture taken June 11, 2020. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo

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 the nearly 40 million shots distributed in freezers rather than in arms.

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, a company spokeswoman told Reuters late on Thursday.

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.

Health officials in Oklahoma and Mississippi told Reuters on Friday they are having or have had conversations with Walmart about partnering to administer shots. Walmart did not provide comment.

Walgreens, CVS, Kroger and Rite Aid are among the other chains that have 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 405,000 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.”

Walmart said in a blog post on Friday it expects to be able to deliver 10 million to 13 million doses per month at full capacity, using its network of more than 5,000 pharmacies in the United States and Puerto Rico.

The retailer also said it is positioned to serve “healthcare deserts” - rural areas lacking in healthcare facilities - and will host COVID-19 vaccination events in underserved communities at churches, stadiums and youth centers.

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,” spokesman Chris Van Deusen said.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said in an emailed statement to 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 our distribution plan.”

Reporting by Melissa Fares in New York and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; additional reporting by; Uday Sampath Kumar in Bengaluru; editing by Steve Orlofsky and Alistair Bell

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