Wednesday, February 8, 2023

US pharmacies face pressure from virus demand and staff shortages

The influx of customers looking for vaccines and staff shortages are squeezing out pharmacies across the United States, leading to worker exhaustion and temporary pharmacy closures.

While pharmacies are usually crammed with flu shots and other vaccines around this time of year, pharmacists are now handing out more COVID-19 shots and testing for coronavirus.

Vaccine push is expected to intensify as President Joe Biden urges vaccinated Americans to be vaccinated to combat the emerging omicron variant. The White House said Thursday that more than two out of three COVID-19 vaccinations are being administered at local pharmacies.

And pharmacists fear another job may soon be added to their to-do list: if drugmakers Merck and Pfizer approve antiviral pills for COVID-19 by regulators, pharmacists will be able to diagnose infections and then prescribe the pills to customers.

“The demand for pharmacies is skyrocketing right now,” said Teresa Tolle, an independent pharmacist who has quadrupled demand for the COVID-19 vaccine at her store in Sebastian, Florida since summer.

Pharmacists say demand for COVID-19 vaccines began to pick up in the summer as the delta variant spread rapidly. Rocket shots and increased vaccine coverage for children have contributed to this since then.

In addition to this workload and routine prescriptions, many pharmacies also ask pharmacists to advise patients more generally about their health or chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Pharmacies are also receiving more and more phone calls from customers with questions about vaccines or COVID-19 tests, said Justin Wilson, who owns three independent pharmacies in Oklahoma.

“We are all working much harder than before, but we are doing our best to take care of people,” Wilson said, adding that he has not yet had to temporarily close any pharmacies or limit opening hours. …

A Sign Outside The Cvs Pharmacy In Indianapolis.
A sign outside the CVS Pharmacy in Indianapolis.

Tolle said she was lucky enough to hire a pharmacy resident shortly before the delta spike began. The new employee was supposed to be mainly involved in diabetes programs, but he was mainly assigned to vaccinations.

Tolle said her Bay Street pharmacy currently makes about 80 COVID-19 vaccines a day, up from 20 pre-delta wave vaccines.

“God’s timing is right for me,” she said. “We wouldn’t have done it if this extra person hadn’t been here.”

Others were less fortunate. CVS Health in northeast Indianapolis closed its pharmacy in mid-afternoon Thursday due to staff concerns. A sign affixed to a metal gate above the pharmacy’s closed counter also informed shoppers that the pharmacy would soon begin closing for half an hour every day to give the pharmacist a lunch break.

These temporary closures have been decreasing and pouring into pockets across the country throughout the pandemic, but they have escalated in recent months, said Ann Burns, vice president of the American Pharmaceutical Association.

All pharmacies require a minimum of staff to operate safely and are sometimes forced to close temporarily if levels fall below this level.

Burns said many pharmacies already had relatively few staff before the pandemic, and a wave of pharmacists and pharmacists left after the virus hit.

“People who have been doing this since March 2020 are experiencing a lot of stress and burnout,” she said.

CVS Health spokesman TJ Crawford said he could not comment on the circumstances of one store. But he said his company continues to “manage a talent shortage that is not unique to CVS Health.”

Rival pharmacy chain Walgreens also adjusted its “limited store” opening hours, according to company spokesman Fraser Engerman.

Both companies are hiring. CVS Health says it has hired 23,000 employees since early September. About half of these are pharmacy technicians who can deliver vaccines.

As companies try to recruit or retain staff, Burns and Tolle are worried about adding even more responsibilities, such as diagnosing and treating COVID-19.

Tolle noted that it is not yet clear how pharmacists will be reimbursed for the time spent on diagnostics and prescribing drugs. This will need to be clarified, especially if the number of cases rises again and pharmacies need to add more staff to help.

“We want to be able to help our communities,” she said. “I don’t know how the pharmacies are going to handle this.”

Sherri Brown, a city clerk in Omaha, Nebraska, was looking for a booster dose of vaccine, but two nearby pharmacies didn’t have an appointment, and a third didn’t have the brand she wanted. She was vaccinated at the county clinic on Friday.

“I just wanted to protect myself,” said Brown, who suffered from coughs, headaches and fatigue for two weeks when she contracted the virus in January, before being vaccinated. “I think it’s encouraging that people are taking this more seriously.”

Grant Schulte of Omaha, Nebraska, contributed to the creation of this story. Follow Tom Murphy on Twitter:

The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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