How COVID-19 has changed life for pharmacists

Submitted photo Bonnie Hatt and Shelley Walling, employees at St. George Pharmacy (Guardian) take steps to protect themselves and the public while still providing essential services for their patients. They are wearing protective gear, practicing social distancing as much as possible, and making sure that they are able to continue offering services to patients.

St. George – When we hear people talking about front line, essential workers who are doing what needs to be done despite the risks of COVID-19, we don’t always know what their average day entails. Take pharmacists for example. They have remained in public, dealing with patients, ensuring they not only understand their prescriptions, but answers to a myriad of health questions.

At the St. George Pharmacy (Guardian), Pharmacist Robyn Gay said she and her staff have been going full tilt since the beginning of the pandemic, and they are doing whatever they can to ensure their clients get everything they need.

“In the beginning, I would say when this first started, the questions and phone calls were relentless,” said Gay. “It was like a call center in here. Picking up, hanging up, and picking up. It was a lot of questions about COVID for sure, and we were kind of triaging people if they needed to get in contact with someone about testing, or if they were fine with what their symptoms were.”

Gay said they were getting many calls from people who were experiencing health issues but also afraid to visit doctors’ offices and emergency rooms. She and her staff were triaging these patients, trying to find out if they could wait until things settle down, or helping them find someone to see them, and directing them to the proper resources.

“We had a lot of patients who were anxiety and depression people calling. The stress of the situation was overwhelming.”

The pharmacist and her staff have been doing plenty of counseling, helping to alleviate the fears of their customers. She mentioned they are allowed to prescribe some medications for minor ailments, such as urinary tract infections, impetigo, muscle aches, hemorrhoids, etc., and staff have been doing this regularly for patients.

“They didn’t know where else to turn. We’ve had lots of calls and people coming in with those sorts of questions. More than normal for sure.”

In a time where things are so uncertain and people are doing all they can to protect themselves, there have been some drastic changes in how the pharmacy operates. For instance, pharmacy staff have been set up into two teams, so they can continue to operate if one person gets sick.

“We normally would have five people working together. Now we’re split so there’s just three of us in the dispensary. We’ve done that with the front staff as well. They’re split into two teams. You can imagine if all of us were working and if someone was exposed to COVID or had symptoms, the whole team would have to stay home for two weeks.

What we’ve done is we’ve isolated ourselves from each other. It’s made a lot more work with less people, but we thought it was necessary. Thankfully, things have gone so well in New Brunswick so that hasn’t ended up becoming a necessary issue.”

Gay said everyone working in the dispensary are wearing masks at all times, since they are working in a small space and are unable to social distance themselves. They are also doing “a ton of cleaning”, and non-essential areas of the store have been closed off, including cards, giftware, and clothing. Over the counter medications are still available to the public, but non-essential shopping is not taking place at the moment.

“We closed that off in the early days because we thought those were areas where infection could easily be spread, stuff that people pick up and put down. So that was a major difference. We actually had the place roped off with caution tape,” she laughed.

The staff at the store are working long hours, and they are tired. Gay said there is little time for bathroom breaks, and they are working without taking lunch hours. They come in to work at 8 a.m. and often don’t leave the store until at least 12 hours later. Normally, the store would be open until 9 p.m., but they are closing at 6 p.m. so they have time to dispense medications.

“That’s been working really well. That has helped reduce the load because at night when we’re not on the phone, we can get a lot of work done.”

Gay said she and her staff are both mentally and physically worn out, working 10 to 12 hour shifts every day at full speed, and many of them are them are in high risk situations themselves, whether it be from health issues, being immune compromised, or being in the older category.

“They’ve shown up every day and did what needs to be done. I’m just so impressed with my staff and the sacrifices they’re making and how hard they’re working.”

Operations within the store have changed to ensure customers are not exposed to the virus. For instance, there is a giant, clear tarp across the entire dispensary with holes cut into it for passing items back and forth. There are sanitizing stations throughout the store, and they are cleaning everything customers touch.

The front area of the store is shielded as well. Staff members are checking their temperatures before coming into work, and there are instructions and a flow chart posted explaining what they need to do if they think they may be sick. They have plenty of hand sanitizer available, but at first there was only enough for staff and not to sell to customers. Now they are fully stocked with sanitizers, gloves, alcohol, etc. for customers.

Another change in operating is how they are getting prescriptions to their patients. Gay said staff are doing curbside pickups for those who prefer to not enter the store. There is a remote access debit machine, so people can drive up, open their windows, tap their cards and drive away.

“Some people prefer to just pop their trunks and we throw their stuff in their trunks. They don’t even want to touch it in terms of us passing it through to them through the windows. We’ll do whatever makes people feel comfortable.“

They have also expanded their delivery service to other parts of Charlotte County. Gay said they have done deliveries of a single item as far away as Lepreau. Where they would normally do deliveries to Blacks Harbour, Pennfield, Deer Island, and other areas on one specific day a week, they are now making daily deliveries. There is a designated delivery person, but often it is staff members who are delivering items to those who live in the same areas as themselves. When doing deliveries, staff are wearing gloves and doing everything as “touchless as possible”.

One of the most difficult things for Gay and her staff is having to isolate themselves from family members. Gay said she has not seen her elderly parents or her grandchildren for a month, because they feel they could be a danger to their loved ones. She said she believes most of the staff is taking the same approach.

“It’s been difficult,” said Gay. “It will make me cry if we keep talking, but for me it’s absolutely the right thing. My parents are almost 80 and my grandchildren are little. They can’t understand about distancing our why we can’t visit and not touch. For now we’re doing FaceTime, but I do see an end in sight. I’m hopeful that these things are going to settle.”

Gay said she watched a video of someone who put on a Hazmat suit and visited with family members, and she is considering doing the same just to be able to spend some time with the people she loves. She said they had ordered a few jumpsuits when all of this began, and they also have some face shields. They all have fears that this virus could continue to spread, and the last thing they want to do is endanger the health of anyone.

“It has been quite scary,” said Gay. “As time goes on, and we’re not having a lot of cases in the province, it’s different. But those initial days, yes, we were sick coming in here. We just had knots in the pit of our stomachs because everything we saw that you’re saving lives by just staying away from people, and we were just in a mix of people all day long.

“It was a weird juxtaposition. It was a strange situation for sure, and very anxious in the beginning. As our numbers have come out and we’re doing so wonderful in New Brunswick, of course our anxiety levels are going down. In the beginning, it was extremely difficult.”