A surge in vaccine-seeking customers, combined with staff shortages, is squeezing drugstores across the United States, resulting in frazzled employees and temporary pharmacy closures.
Normally, this time of year, pharmacies are swamped with flu shots and other vaccines, but now pharmacists are dispensing an increasing number of COVID-19 shots and administering coronavirus tests.
As President Joe Biden urges vaccinated Americans to get booster shots to combat the emerging omicron variant, the push for shots is expected to intensify. According to the White House, more than two out of every three COVID-19 jobs vaccinations are administered at local pharmacies.
And pharmacists are concerned that another job will be added to their to-do list soon: If antiviral pills from Merck and Pfizer are approved by regulators to treat COVID-19, pharmacists may be able to diagnose infections and then prescribe pills to customers.
“There’s crazy increased demand on pharmacies right now,” said Theresa Tolle, an independent pharmacist who has seen COVID-19 vaccine demand quadruple since the summer at her Sebastian, Florida, store.
According to pharmacists, demand for COVID-19 vaccines increased over the summer as the delta variant spread rapidly. It has since been fueled by booster shots and the expansion of vaccine eligibility to include children.
In addition to the workload and routine prescriptions, many drugstores have asked pharmacists to counsel patients more broadly about their health or about chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
Customers calling pharmacies with questions about vaccines or COVID-19 tests have also increased, according to Justin Wilson, owner of three independent pharmacies in Oklahoma.
“We’re all working a lot harder than we did before, but we’re doing everything we can to take care of people,” Wilson said, adding that he has not had to temporarily close any of his pharmacies or limit hours so far.
Tolle said she was fortunate to have hired a pharmacy resident just before the delta surge. The new employee was supposed to be primarily responsible for diabetes programs but has been largely relegated to vaccine duty.
Tolle said her Bay Street Pharmacy is now giving about 80 COVID-19 vaccines a day, up from 20 before the delta wave. “God’s timing worked out well for me,” she said. “We would not have gotten through without having that additional person here.”
Others have not fared as well. Due to staffing issues, a CVS Health store on Indianapolis’ northeast side closed its pharmacy in the middle of the afternoon Thursday. Customers were also informed, via a sign taped to the metal gate above the closed pharmacy counter, that the pharmacy would soon begin closing for a half-hour each afternoon so the pharmacist could take a lunch break.
Such temporary closures have ebbed and flowed across the country throughout the pandemic, but they have become more acute in recent months, according to Anne Burns, vice president of the American Pharmacists Association. Pharmacies all need minimum staffing to operate safely, and they sometimes have to close temporarily if they fall below those levels.
Burns said many pharmacies already had relatively thin staffing levels heading into the pandemic and a wave of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians left after the virus hit.
“There is a lot of stress and burnout for individuals who have been going at this since March of 2020,” she said. CVS Health spokesman T.J. Crawford said he couldn’t comment on the circumstances for one store. But he said his company continues “to manage through a workforce shortage that isn’t unique to CVS Health.”
Walgreens, a competitor drugstore chain, has also changed pharmacy hours “in a limited number of stores,” according to spokesman Fraser Engerman. Both businesses are hiring. CVS Health claims to have hired 23,000 people as a result of a hiring push that began in September. Pharmacy technicians, who can administer vaccines, made up roughly half of that total.
As businesses compete to hire and retain employees, Burns and Tolle are concerned about adding new responsibilities such as diagnosing and treating COVID-19. Tolle pointed out that it is unclear how pharmacists will be compensated for the time it takes to diagnose and prescribe.
Source: The Denver Post