The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has hit almost every industry hard and pharmacies are no exception. However, there are some unique challenges that have been presented to pharmacists, who are responsible for ensuring patients get the right medications on time, notes Andrew Gyorda, RPh who manages Hollis Pharmacy in Hollis, New Hampshire.
Pharmacies were deemed an essential service early on in the global pandemic and have adopted ways to safely serve patients and educate them about the proper use of face masks and sanitizing. But there’s another good reason pharmacies have remained open: to deliver the bulk of the nation’s medications and provide a safe haven for those seeking health care.
However, there has been a lot of discussion and some fears around the availability of medications, as some drug ingredients are manufactured overseas — particularly in China. While the U.S. continues to be a leader in drug development, it has moved away considerably from being at the forefront of drug manufacturing.
Added to that have been concerns about how medicines are being distributed if a community pharmacy closes due to the pandemic (which there have been some reports of) and whether physical distancing protocols will disrupt access to prescription drugs.
Keeping Essential Medicines in Stock
Some pharmacies are heeding the strategy outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO), more specifically, keeping essential medicines in stock at prices that are affordable. The WHO has been maintaining a list of these essential medicines long before the current pandemic and they include medications such as antibiotics, antivirals, as well as drugs that treat mental illnesses, and cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, explains Mr. Gyorda.
While keeping important medicines on hand, pharmacists can also help mitigate shortages by limiting stockpiling by patients. That means restricting medications to a 30-day emergency supply for all patients, as some people have been “panic buying” medications for fear of shortages. This was fueled partially by experts warning early on in the pandemic that drug shortages could become reality. These fears weren’t completely unfounded — according to the FDA, there are some current and ongoing drug shortages.
At the same time, some health insurers have loosened limitations on refills to ensure less chance of disruption to a patient’s medication supply.
Stepping Up Home Delivery and In-Store Protocols
The current pandemic has made many pharmacists reconsider how they get their products to patients, adds Mr. Gyorda. Many pharmacies across the country previously only had walk-in service, but that is changing as many, like his pharmacy, are offering curbside delivery, home delivery and mailing of medications, he adds.
These services allow a patient to get their needed prescriptions without physically entering a pharmacy, which can put a patient and the staff at risk of infection. This is especially important, as the COVID19 virus can present no symptoms. Most pharmacies, including Hollis Pharmacy, have adopted guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for dealing with patients that visit in-store, which states all patrons shall wear face coverings, whether they feel ill or not.
Those working behind the pharmacy counter are following suit. Hollis Pharmacy screens all associates for fever and recent changes in health at the start of every shift, and will not permit any employee with signs or symptoms of illness to remain at work. Additionally, hand sanitizer is being made available to both patients and staff, in-store, at all times.
Pharmacies Continue to Manage Supply and Demand
By following responses such as a 30-day emergency supply limit on medications and implementing services such as home delivery that ensure no disruption to a patient’s drug supply, pharmacies have found ways to serve patients effectively during the pandemic, explains Mr. Gyorda.
Meanwhile, government agencies such as the FDA continue to monitor the medication supply chain and identify any drug ingredients that could fall into a shortage to help community pharmacies meet demand.