A look at Walmart's COVID-19 vaccination strategy in underserved areas

Walmart has administered tens of millions of COVID-19 vaccines to date, with 80% delivered in medically underserved communities, the retail giant announced Wednesday.

The company released a report (PDF) looking back at its progress in providing vaccines over the course of 2021. Cheryl Pegus, M.D., executive vice president of health and wellness at Walmart, told Fierce Healthcare the company has focuses on connecting with people who may not otherwise have been able to get the shot.

"I think when you look at how everyone has gone about going about getting people immunized, we have used a unique approach," she said. "We have focused on people who did not have access to healthcare and who did not have a trusted relationship with healthcare."

Most Americans, about 90%, live within 10 miles of a Walmart, and Pegus said the company's community presence has been a critical part of its vaccine rollout strategy.

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A recent report from the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) and researchers at Rutgers University notes vaccine hesitancy is a trust challenge, and Walmart is positioned to tackle those challenges as it's an existing and known quantity in local communities.

Walmart adopted a "get out the vote" approach, harnessing community partnerships, corporate partners, local media and other sources to reach people in rural and vulnerable areas. For instance, it deployed a number of events at its retail stores, Sam's Club stores and other locations to spread the word.

In Las Vegas, the retail giant teamed with Telemundo to boost awareness of an off-site clinic it was hosting to reach the underserved local Hispanic community. Nevada's governor and attorney general visited the site, which delivered 1,200 first doses and 800 second doses in one weekend.

The retailer also rolled out a number of tools to connect members with vaccines, such as an online scheduling tool that was usable in both English and Spanish.

"We’ve been intentional in how we utilize the trust that we have in these communities and how we utilize our own partnership in being apart of the community," Pegus said.

In addition to focusing on vulnerable groups externally, Walmart also looked inward as a focus for its vaccine and COVID-19 response effort. The retail giant invested significantly in supports for its associates and employees and made a concerted push to get its workers vaccinated.

These two pillars are both sides of the same coin, Pegus said, as what people really want from the health system is to be understood and validated.

"In healthcare, there are two things that we all want: We want to get the best care that we can, and we also want to feel like this person cares about me," she said.