As government leaders, policymakers, and technology companies continue to navigate the global coronavirus pandemic, CDT is actively monitoring the latest responses and working to ensure they are grounded in civil rights and liberties. Our policy teams aim to help leaders craft solutions that balance the unique needs of the moment, while still respecting and upholding individual human rights. Find more of our work at cdt.org/coronavirus.
Vaccinations against COVID-19 protect individuals, their loved ones, and the community. In order to receive one of these vaccinations, patients should not have to turn over personal data to for-profit companies for purposes that are unrelated to the administration of the vaccine.
Unfortunately, some of the pharmacies participating in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program have publicly said that they plan to use data gathered from patients receiving a COVID-19 vaccination for commercial purposes. Specifically, national pharmacy chains like CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart are collecting data from patients as they sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations, including creating user accounts or using information about patients to improve efforts to market to them.
Pharmacies are playing an essential role in the distribution of vaccines.
Under the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program (FRPP), the federal government allocates a portion of the national vaccine supply to pharmacy chains around the country. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that the program improves distribution through pharmacists who are trained to counsel patients, administer vaccines, and provide vaccine education. From the program’s inception through April 1, 2021, FRPP participants have administered more than 26 million doses.
The CDC notes that pharmacies are often readily accessible in many communities and that most Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy. The federal government has been incrementally rolling out and expanding this program and ultimately plans for the program to include more than 40,000 pharmacies within the United States. Participating pharmacies do not charge patients for vaccinations. Instead, they can bill insurers and the government for the cost of administering vaccines.
Local pharmacies can potentially help address some of the longstanding issues surrounding the pandemic and its disproportionate effects on many communities within the United States. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has found that the pandemic has highlighted stark health disparities among Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander populations in several areas, including infections, hospitalizations, death rates, and vaccination rates. Having additional vaccination locations, especially within traditionally marginalized communities, may help ensure each and every person has access to a life-saving vaccination. In many communities, the local pharmacies may be the closest and most convenient location for a host of individuals.
Pharmacies should not take advantage of their role by using information collected for the administration of the vaccine for unrelated commercial purposes.
COVID-19 vaccinations are different from other services that pharmacies provide. During this global pandemic, pharmacies participating in the FRPP are performing the same essential service as federal and state health agencies tasked with administering COVID-19 vaccines throughout the country. Of course, patients may have to disclose certain information about themselves for verification of their eligibility, the administration of second doses when required, and public health recordkeeping. But this effort, and the data associated with it, is different from the more traditional services that commercial pharmacies perform every day. Common commercial and marketing practices at pharmacies that may accompany routine services (such as filling prescriptions) have no place in the nationwide effort to vaccinate as many people as possible within the United States and end this public health crisis.
Entities administering COVID-19 vaccines, including pharmacies, should:
- collect only the data necessary to facilitate vaccine administration;
- use the data only for that purpose; and
- delete the data once it is no longer needed for that purpose.
Patients who receive their vaccinations from the federal, state, or local government providers do not risk their data also being used for unrelated commercial purposes. The same should apply to patients who receive a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy participating in the FRPP. It is not fair to predicate the receipt of a life-saving vaccine on the disclosure and use of patient data for unrelated commercial purposes.
Pharmacies should not exploit their unique position to profit from the ongoing national health emergency – and put individuals in the position of having to potentially sacrifice their privacy – in order to obtain a vaccine to protect their and their family’s health.