Pharmacies face many challenges amid COVID-19 pandemic

·9 min read

Dec. 25—According to research found on the CDC website, most Americans live within 5 miles of some kind of pharmacy.

For many people, pharmacies are often the hub where some of their most vital medical needs are met — whether that's through a simple prescription refill or a quick trip for a checkup that they don't believe warrants a hospital visit.

And while pharmacies have always been a critical part of any community, their roles and responsibilities nationwide have also increased over the course of the past two years: providing COVID-19 testing and vaccines on top of their regular duties.

As of Dec. 9, for instance, more than 187.4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered and reported by pharmacies involved in the U.S. government's Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, per the CDC.

Around that same date, news broke that the United States crossed the threshold of 200 million COVID-19 vaccines, meaning around 93% of them had been handed out in a pharmacy setting.

Through October in Indiana alone, the CDC noted that Hoosier pharmacies had given out well over 2 million COVID-19 vaccines or boosters, and that number likely increased dramatically with the addition of COVID-19 vaccinations for children last month.

And though the results of their efforts have been life-saving, some experts also say it's all been taxing on the profession as well — from burnout and staffing issues to long lines and frustrated customers.

Staffing woes

Pharmacy staffing issues are not anything new.

That was the sentiment shared recently by Dr. Veronica Vernon, president-elect of the Indiana Pharmacists Association and an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at Butler University's College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

The issue has been building for a few years now, she said, and she feels the state would have been likely having the conversations they're having now a few years down the road.

But the pandemic seemed to speed up and exacerbate the issues.

"What we've seen as a result of that is many open positions right now in both pharmacists and technicians," Vernon noted in a recent phone interview. "Many of them feel like they don't want to work anymore in a setting where they feel burned out or stressed. They're constantly being pressured to fill as many prescriptions as possible and take on all these new tasks as well.

"And they're just tired," she continued. "The pandemic has really worn our pharmacists and technicians around the state down. They've truly been heroes during this whole pandemic, but they're just getting worn down."

Vernon added that these new pandemic roles are also leading some pharmacy employees to work 12 to 14 days in a row in order to help provide coverage so their facilities won't have to close down or shift their hours.

And that's concerning, Vernon said, especially from a safety perspective.

"We want to make sure that pharmacists and technicians can take their time to make sure your prescriptions are filled properly and that patients receive proper information," she noted. "Your pharmacist also wants to spend time with you talking about those prescriptions and making sure they're used appropriately. But with everything new added on with the pandemic, it's been a real challenge to have that one-on-one time."

Some pharmacists and technicians are leaving the profession and the health care industry altogether, too, Vernon noted, opting for careers with a slower and less hectic pace.

Vernon said she doesn't fault people for leaving the pharmacy profession, admitting that she's spoken to some in the field who wonder when it will ever get better.

Even the recruitment of new pharmacy employees to help alleviate the burden of staffing issues is also difficult right now, Vernon acknowledged.

"The Indiana Professional Licensing Agency, which is where the Indiana Board of Pharmacy is housed under, they've been experiencing their own shortages as well," she said.

So all that backlogs the system, Vernon added.

The application process slows down, along with the time it takes to approve background checks and get potential employees through the education and training process.

One pharmacy manager recently told Vernon that she had been waiting two months for a response to an application.

In other words, Vernon noted, there are qualified people ready to help, but it's just difficult to get them in the door.

Impact on independent, community pharmacies

Perhaps the impact is felt worse in those small communities that rely the most on pharmacies for support, Vernon indicated.

"If those smaller town or rural-area pharmacies have to close (because of staffing), that can be really devastating because you wouldn't have a pharmacy in your hometown to get your medications quickly," she said. "Then there are also the independent pharmacies, the ones that aren't retail like a Walmart or Walgreens. They are also just as integral to so many people on local levels. Losing any of them, or having to have them shift their open times, that can be so damaging to a community."

Kathy Condo is a pharmacist at Herbst Pharmacy in Kokomo, and like Vernon, she, too, said she's seen the impact of the pandemic on pharmacies firsthand.

"We have been actively involved with vaccine administration and all the education that surrounds the vaccines and virus," Condo said in an email. "... The added workload of scheduling, administering and documenting vaccines has certainly been a challenge. Even several months into vaccinating, we are still working to improve our workflow and efficiency."

Condo didn't comment on whether Herbst Pharmacy has been having staffing issues like others around the state and nation, but she did acknowledge that the increased responsibilities have been taxing, to say the least.

But staffing issues aren't the only impact being felt at pharmacies.

There's the impact of drug shortages, too, which can be as frustrating to pharmacy employees as they can be to consumers.

"It used to be that people would go out to their pharmacist and say they needed a medication, and the pharmacist would say, 'Well we're out of stock, but we can get it in 24 hours,'" Vernon said. "That was the norm back then. But that's not the case anymore. It's taking weeks or longer, and we're told by suppliers that we don't know when we'll be able to get the medications. That's obviously concerning."

The American Society of Health System Pharmacist has a list of drug shortages that is accessible online.

As of right now, the list is over 76 pages long and has over 700 entries.

"It's a constant list," Vernon said, "and it's a constant headache for those who need those medications to survive."

And many of these medications — especially if they are being used to treat rare conditions — don't always have alternatives that might be in stock, Vernon added.

So what are the solutions to these challenges and impacts?

They're not always as easy as they sound, experts pointed out.

Finding solutions and how you can help

Vernon said she understands that changing state laws or overhauling pharmacies aren't viable short-term solutions for the chaos that the profession is seeing these days, but she believes there are steps that can be taken to alleviate some of the added stress the industry's employees are currently seeing.

Adding more COVID-19 testing and vaccine sites, for example, are potential steps of action.

That would lessen the burden, she said, and perhaps decrease the workload on pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.

Getting more staff into the Indiana Board of Pharmacy in order to process more potential employee applications and background checks would be another fix, Vernon added, though that would not necessarily be quick.

So perhaps some of the best advice Vernon said she could give to those consumers out there who are frustrated with the way pharmacies are running these days is just to practice patience.

"Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, they want to be able to help you the best way they can," she said, "but getting your prescription in 15 minutes or less is unrealistic these days in many instances. So I just want folks to be patient. I really can't stress that enough. If you don't have to wait at the pharmacy, come back later. Ask for your prescription to be sent over from your prescriber's office and anticipate that it could take a few hours for that prescription to even reach the pharmacy.

"And if you need refills to the pharmacy, check your bottles early," Vernon added. "Check them at the beginning of a week so that you have time to get in touch with your doctor or nurse practitioner to send those refills in to the pharmacy."

You can also sign up for text alerts when your prescription is ready, Vernon said, as well as go online to request refills.

"That will help our pharmacy staff because I do want to try to reduce the level of calls that our pharmacy staff gets," she said. "They do want to talk to you. You're important to them. But if it's something that's not an urgent matter, if you can do it online or though texts, please do. When the pharmacist stops to answer the phone, and they get maybe 100 calls an hour or more, that is stopping their workflow and preventing them from getting those prescriptions filled in a timely manner."

Condo agreed with Vernon, adding that if someone believes they are sick but still needs prescriptions or refills, they should visit the pharmacy's drive-thru or call for curbside delivery to help minimize the spread of illness.

And remember to say "thank you," they said.

"I feel like a little bit of gratitude goes a long way for those individuals that are feeling the burnout and stress right now," Vernon said. "I'm immensely proud of our pharmacists and technicians. They get up early every morning and work until late at night. They go above and beyond what's expected of them. So just stopping to thank them for all their sacrifices, I know, would mean the world to some of them."

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