For the past two years, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals have been on the frontline, providing face-to-face support and acting as concierges to help patients deal with their concerns over COVID-19.
While pharmacies were not part of the early distribution network for vaccines in Australia, patients often turned to their community pharmacy for help to get appointments with doctors or at government health hubs, or to answer questions about the vaccines.
Since being brought into the vaccine rollout, pharmacists have played a key role in getting Western Australians vaccinated. In WA, the pharmacy sector has administered over one million doses since the beginning of the pandemic. Our network alone, has administered more than 200,000 COVID-19 vaccinations, largely since vaccinations were available from August 2021.
As a state, we have been lucky to avoid the high case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths experienced on the east coast. Nevertheless, when case numbers started to rise in WA, several of our pharmacies were exposed, forcing those staff into isolation. Throughout the pandemic, pharmacies have introduced consistent infection control procedures and with cases increasing, staff began wearing full PPE.
Despite the challenges presented, pharmacies have stayed open, recognising that as an industry we provide an essential service. That has meant coming into contact with the virus on a day-to-day basis and the inevitable stress that creates for staff. Telehealth was not an option for pharmacy, as we needed to stay open, supply essential medicines, deliver vaccines, and support the community.
As a business, we try to mitigate the stress for our staff, for example, by having an emergency response team available if a pharmacy is exposed to COVID-19, forcing staff into isolation. We’ve offered extra training and counselling to deal with various challenges and we try to ensure our pharmacies don’t get overwhelmed and that staff take breaks. We have been fortunate to have high staffing levels, which has allowed for a bit more resilience than many other businesses.
Aside from a few exposures that required some staff to isolate, none of our pharmacies have been severely hit, which has been a huge relief. That was perhaps my greatest concern, given that pharmacies provide an essential health service, preparing and delivering medication to aged care facilities and managing prescriptions for many patients. I recognised that if a pharmacy or several pharmacies were forced to close, the implications for patients with prescriptions for life-saving medicines could be dire.
Some of our pharmacies have had to deal with extreme public sentiments, protests, and concerns about vaccination mandates. While such sentiments and activities have also been targeted to various other health care professionals involved in the vaccine roll out, it is always a challenge for first line health care providers who do their best to support the delivery of public policy to receive negative sentiments from the public during such critical times.
Despite the stresses and challenges, pharmacies across WA have been professional in their dealings with patients. They have provided essential services and the one-on-one support many patients would otherwise struggle to access.
Even with a largely vaccinated population in WA, the work of pharmacists hasn’t slowed down. They are turning their attention to helping patients deal with their own fears, providing assurance that for most vaccinated people COVID-19 is not a major source for concern, as the low number of hospitalisations show, all the while continuing to manage other medical needs.
With flu season fast approaching, our 777 pharmacists will handle around 100,000 flu vaccines this year, as well as the fourth COVID-19 booster, which is being recommended for vulnerable Australians. Combining flu vaccines in 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 vaccines to date and expected COVID boosters this year, we’ll likely have handled close to 600,000 vaccinations since the start of the pandemic.
That not only ensures patients get the support they need but also meant vaccination appointments were shared across state clinic, GPs and pharmacies in supporting the national roll out.
It has been a long two years for pharmacists and all healthcare professionals, and it’s far from over but as a profession, pharmacists have more than played their part in keeping the WA community safe, vaccinated and supported.
Kim Brotherson, Managing Director, Pharmacy 777 | Opinion featured in the West Australian 14/4/22