As health care workers in Vermont are taking on the challenge of responding to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, some individuals who have had close contact with the sick are asking for consideration.
Jeffrey Hochberg, who has been director at the Rutland Pharmacy for more than 15 years and serves at president of Vermont Retail Druggists, said he tries to remind consumers that the pharmacy is on the front line during a medical crisis.
“We have to stay open throughout this entire crisis. Diabetes, heart conditions, all of those pre-existing conditions will not stop because of this (pandemic) and we have to make sure we’re here to serve our communities,” Hochberg said.
Hochberg said the local pharmacy has to deal with anxious customers who have been told they should get a 90-day supply of medications, even if the medication wasn’t due for renewal. Doctors are approving the prescription, but Hochberg said the system wasn’t prepared for the rush.
“We have enough drugs in stock in the country, in the national warehouses, but it’s a matter of getting products to pharmacies so they can deliver them to patients,” Hochberg said.
He said it takes extra time to get from manufacturers to the pharmacies; it is the staff members at the local pharmacy who have to explain the problem to patients.
“As soon as this started hitting our country, the wholesalers started allocating to pharmacies all across the country as to how much product you could get at a time. Now, in certain situations, it’s reduced down to weekly allotments,” Hochberg said.
Hochberg said in his role with the Vermont Retail Druggists, an advocacy group, he had been working with Vermont lawmakers, who were doing what they can do to help.
The stores also need to wait for reimbursements from state, federal and private insurers.
The Rutland Pharmacy made another big change on Wednesday, responding to Gov. Phil Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” policy. Hochberg said they’re still open, but using curbside service, mail and the drive-through window.
Marty Irons, supervisory pharmacist at Beauchamp and O’Rourke Pharmacy and past chairman of the board for the Vermont Pharmacists Association, said pharmacists have always been the most accessible health care professionals. They need to be mindful of their own health in order to serve the patients who come in seeking to have their prescriptions filled, he said.
“For ourselves to be able to continue to remain fairly accessible to a patient population, as well as provide medication, rather than putting the limited supplies of personal protective equipment that we’re able to receive on the shelf, we have to keep our own inventory, just like the hospital does so that we don’t run out,” he said.
Irons said he made an application about a week ago to the state for an emergency supply of masks; he has not received a response.
“Today, we’re fine. Tomorrow, we’re fine. But Vermont’s not going to peak for a couple of weeks, and that’s what I’m most concerned with, not being able to talk to patients face-to-face,” Irons said.
Hochberg said staff are getting questions about COVID-19, some of which can’t be answered.
“We have default responses that we can only tell you what the studies have shown,” Hochberg said.
As of Wednesday, Irons said Beauchamp was not taking the same steps the Rutland Pharmacy had in place. Many of their customers are very local and get to the pharmacy on foot, Irons said.
However, Irons said there is a sign on the door telling people Beauchamp has no thermometers, no hand sanitizer and no masks.
Hochberg said he was seeing positive developments. For instance, he said hospitals are helping them identify patients who have been confirmed as having COVID-19, so pharmacies can get medication to patients in a way that’s safe for the staff.
“It’s starting to happen. I think, actually, this most recent order (from the state,) it’s forced it. But I’m really trying to get the word out. A lot of people call and ask, ‘Are you guys going to be open? Are you going to be open? How am I going to get my meds?’ Pharmacies are going to be there. Grocery stores are going to be there. This community is going to rally together and do whatever they can. Pharmacy and pharmacy techs are going to brave it out, and they’re going to help as best they can,” he said.