Alumnus at forefront of COVID-19 battle

January 26, 2021
Walgreens executive Ed Kaleta, '95, takes a lead in the COVID-19 testing and vaccination rollouts

The call came in March. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked if Walgreens could help with COVID-19 testing. Three days later, Ed Kaleta, ’95, Group Vice President for Government Relations at Walgreens, drove from his Arlington, Va. home to Maryland to observe an improvised version of a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site—operating in a parking lot.

“Administering COVID-19 testing is exactly what Walgreens, a community pharmacy, is all about,” Kaleta said. “We agreed to help and rolled out 12 similar parking lot sites in the next few weeks. Less than a year later, Walgreens has over 2,000 testing sites across the country and has completed over 3.5 million COVID tests.”  

Another call came several months later. Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership charged with developing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines, requested Walgreens’ help in administering vaccinations. Walgreens agreed.

Because of their prior experience operating large-scale flu clinics, pharmacy giants Walgreens and CVS had the capacity to play a major role in COVID-19 testing and vaccination rollouts, Kaleta explained.

“It’s been a wild ride with many sleepless nights,” he said. “Since March, I’ve worked seven days straight for weeks on end. My wife often slides food under the door of our bedroom where I’ve set up my home office.”

“My education at University of Richmond in political science and leadership studies and my professional work during the last 25 years have channeled into my last year of work fighting the pandemic. It’s been tremendously fulfilling and terribly, terribly hard.”

Kaleta described some challenges associated with the testing and vaccination rollouts: “We faced legislative and regulatory hurdles. Federal and state laws had to be changed to permit pharmacists to administer the COVID-19 tests. In September, we learned we would have to purchase hundreds of special refrigerators because the Pfizer vaccine requires ultra-cold storage.

“At first the refrigerator manufacturer couldn’t guarantee production of enough refrigerators to meet our needs. But when we displayed the manufacturer’s name and logo during a presentation to top Operation Warp Speed officials, the manufacturer promised to make it happen.”

Months ago, Operation Warp Speed and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention envisioned a system for administering COVID-19 vaccinations to the most vulnerable people first. They prioritized long-term-care facilities, essential healthcare workers, the elderly, and people with certain underlying health conditions.

“Walgreens kicked off its vaccination rollout the week before Christmas,” Kaleta said. “But some long-term-care facilities didn’t want us to administer vaccinations until after the holidays, which led to delays. We’ve also seen a lag time in reporting, with the result being that Walgreens has administered many more vaccines than long-term-care facilities have reported.

“Some long-term-care patients and employees experience vaccination hesitancy. We have a lot of work to do as a country to help people understand the importance of getting vaccinated.”

Everybody—from the private sector, to academia, to government—has a role to play in spreading this message, he said, adding that timing is critical. “We should not launch a campaign combatting vaccination hesitancy until we have enough vaccines to give to most people who want to be vaccinated.”

Despite the many challenges and intense work, Kaleta said he is thankful for this opportunity to be at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“Sometimes you work your entire career for a moment in time like this. I take tremendous pride in looking back at all the work teams across Walgreens have done to prepare for this moment.”