Don’t get shingles, get the vaccine now

by Madeleine Kolb

Two days ago standing at the prescription counter at CVS, I nearly lost it. I got very  frustrated and was taking it out on the young pharmacist at the counter.

The more he tried to explain that CVS no longer carries the shingles vaccine, the more irate I became. Finally, I got a grip. I stopped in mid-tirade and said

I know it’s not your fault. I’m just so frustrated because I’m doing what I was told to do, and now I need to go home and start over. I apologize.

What on earth is shingles and how do you get it?

What provoked this incident was my attempt to get a shingles shot. There are four different vaccinations indicated for a person with my risk factors, and Shingles is one of them.

Shingles is a skin rash caused by the Varicella Zoster virus—the same virus which causes chicken pox. And only people who’ve had chickenpox can get shingles. In addition to the rash, the main symptom is pain—intense, protracted pain. 

Viruses are diabolical. They invade your body and wreak havoc. If you get better, some viruses go dormant. You may think they’re gone, but they’re still lurking there. After years or even decades, they may become activated and wreak more damage. Think Herpes or AIDS.

Treatment for shingles involves taking antiviral drugs and drugs for the pain. The best course, though, is to prevent it by getting vaccinated for shingles.

How do you get the vaccine?

Normally, getting a vaccine—a shot—is no big deal. But for me getting the shingles shot turned into an obstacle course. One reason is that many doctors, including mine, do not store supplies of the shingles vaccine.

So they write a prescription for a patient (let’s call him Larry) who takes it to a drug-store which gives him a packet of the vaccine to take to his doctor’s office where a doctor or nurse gives him the shot. The technical term for this is “brown-bagging.”

But it’s more complicated than that. The vaccine needs to be kept cold, so Larry needs to bring a small cooler with real ice or frozen Blue-ice packs to the drug-store to bring the vaccine to his doctor’s office. This was the procedure described by Susie (not her real name) at my doctor’s office who also mentioned a specific pharmacy to go to.

Searching for a simple shingles shot

On Monday this week, I checked my health insurance company’s web site and found out that the pharmacy Susie mentioned was not a service provider in its network, but CVS was. On Tuesday morning I set out.

*** I drove to CVS—armed with my prescription, my medical insurance card, and my small cooler holding several frozen packs of Blue-ice. It was there that I had the interaction described above with the perfectly nice young pharmacist at the prescription counter.

*** I drove back home and called my doctor’s office. This time I spoke to Estelle (not her real name) who promised to get back to me.

*** I checked my health insurance company’s website again and found that RiteAid Pharmacy was also on the list of service providers.

*** I called RiteAid and found out that the pharmacy did carry shingles vaccine.

*** I called my doctor’s office and spoke to Estelle (who had not called me back). She  said that she thought RiteAid also administered the shots at the pharmacy. At this point, I had a feeling of elation: this was the big breakthrough I was waiting for.

*** I called RiteAid back and asked whether the company administered the shots at the pharmacy. The pharmacist said that it did!

*** I drove to RiteAid (which is very near the CVS I had gone to earlier), filled out some forms, waited a bit, and got my shingles shot.

*** When I got home, I called my doctor’s office and spoke to Estelle again. I told her that RiteAid had the vaccine and was able to administer it right then and there. No ice chest, no trip back to the doctor.

The good part

Although the vaccine is not 100% effective in preventing shingles, I’m as immune from this horrible disease as I can be. And for the rest of my life. Also my health insurance covered the cost of the vaccine as part of its preventive care program.

The not-so-good part

*** The process is way too complicated. Some doctors’ offices store shingles vaccine on-site; some send patients to a pharmacy. Some pharmacies store the vaccine on-site; some don’t. Of those which do store the vaccine, some pharmacies administer the shot; some don’t. This last group provides the vaccine, and the patient needs to bring it to his doctor’s office in a cooler to get the shot.

*** The cost aspect has its own complications. If health insurance doesn’t cover the cost of the vaccine, Medicare will. But Medicare won’t cover the cost up front; it will reimburse the cost which is a hefty $200. So you need to get specific information about coverage for shingles vaccination under your own health care insurance and/or Medicare.

*** The worst part though, is that at least one million people a year in the U.S. get this terrible disease which is largely preventable by vaccination. However, the cost of the vaccine, the potential hassle, or both mean that some people at risk may not be able to prevent a long, painful, debilitating bout with shingles.

I hope that my experience will help you avoid some of the problems I encountered and keep you from ranting at a nice young pharmacist who is just trying to help. I welcome your comments

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