Pharmacists face lack of protection, anxious customers in COVID-19 pandemic

By | March 24, 2020

TORONTO — Like thousands of front-line health workers, COVID-19 has made life much harder for pharmacists across Canada.

Sam Bolos, who runs Mina Pharmacy in Scarborough, Ont., can’t get masks or sanitizers to protect staff and customers. He is hunting for other supplies online. Some in the community have donated sanitary wipes.

The situation is not very easy,” he told CTV News on Tuesday. “It’s a first time for me to face something like that.”

He is not alone. Many pharmacists are unable to get personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, masks and sanitizer from wholesalers because of overwhelming demand.

Some are paying to install large plexiglass barriers that shield the pharmacists and staff from customers who may be ill.

Still others like Nadeem Ahmed, with Total Health Pharmacy in Mississauga, Ont., have scrounged around for a way to protect staff using plastic.

“We put up the shower curtains and tape them and people also can see the caution tape, so the idea is that people are at least a metre away from us,” he said.

“If I don’t put up the barriers it puts us at risk and them at risk,” he said.

Ahmed says he also tries not to accept a cash, to minimize the chance the virus is on the bills. And he only lets people into his pharmacy a few at a time.

The second problem many pharmacists face are a surge in refill requests. Anxious patients are stockpiling medications for chronic, ongoing conditions, like diabetes, blood pressure and asthma.

“People are coming to the pharmacy demanding three months (worth of refills) in six months supply of medications,” said Kyro Mesha, a Toronto pharmacist .

That’s dangerous because if one person has too much there may not be enough for those others, he explained.

“You don’t want another toilet paper scenario in your hands,” Mesiha said.

“My message that there is a good supply but we have to share. We have to work together.”

That’s why the Canadian Pharmacists Association is urging members country-wide to reduce the usual three-month prescription refills to just one month supply at a time. The measure will ease the demand on critical medications — and other pharmaceutical groups agree.

“We understand there’s a lot of fear and anxiety,” said Allan Malek, chief pharmacy officer for the Ontario Pharmacists Association.

“We’re just looking to make sure that medications are dispensed in a rational and a controlled manner so that we have medications there for everyone when they need it.”

The latest challenge is helping reassure stressed-out patients that this will work.

Anne Maliewsky, 79, is staying at home because her age and blood pressure put her at high risk of serious COVID-19 pneumonia. And she worries she won’t get her medication.

Sam Bolos delivers medication and a calming message when he visits his clients door to door.

“You will have medication, we are working on supply,” he tells Anne.

“Don’t worry. You will get it on time.”

Diane Fried also needs drugs to control diabetes and cholesterol. She is doing her best to cope.

“You do what you have to do,” she said. “You know, you’ve just got to. Everybody’s got to do their bit.”

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