Drug stores around the US are shrinking due to a shortage of vaccine-seeking customers and staff, worsening worker conditions and temporarily closing pharmacies.
Drugstores are typically busy this time of year with flu shots and other vaccines, but now pharmacists are rolling out an increasing number of COVID-19 shots and giving coronavirus tests.
The push for shots is expected to become more intense as President Joe Biden urges vaccinated Americans to get booster shots to counter the emerging Omicron variant. More than two out of three COVID-19 vaccinations are taking place at local pharmacies, the White House said on Thursday.
And pharmacists worry that one more task may soon be added to their to-do list: If regulators approve antiviral pills from drugmakers Merck and Pfizer to treat COVID-19, pharmacists will be able to diagnose the infection. and then prescribe pills to customers.
“There’s a huge surge in demand at pharmacies right now,” said Theresa Tolle, an independent pharmacist who has seen demand for a COVID-19 vaccine quadruple since the summer at her Sebastian, Florida, store.
Pharmacists say demand for COVID-19 vaccines began to rise in the summer as the delta version spread rapidly. Booster shots and the expansion of vaccine eligibility to include children have fueled this ever since.
In addition to that workload and regular prescriptions, many drugstores are also asking pharmacists to give more advice to patients about their health or chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.
Justin Wilson, owner of three independent pharmacies in Oklahoma, said pharmacies are also handling more phone calls from customers with questions about vaccines or COVID-19 tests.
“We’re all working a lot harder than before, but we’re doing everything we can to care for people,” Wilson said. ,
Tolle said she was lucky to have hired a pharmacy resident just before the Delta boom took place. The new employee was supposed to focus mostly on diabetes programs, but has been largely laid off on vaccine duty.
Tolle said his Bay Street pharmacy is now delivering about 80 COVID-19 vaccines a day, up from 20 before the Delta wave.
“God’s timing worked well for me,” she said. “We wouldn’t have gotten here without that extra person.”
Others have not been so lucky.
A CVS Health store on the northeast side of Indianapolis closed its pharmacy mid-Thursday due to staffing issues. A metal gate sign at the closed pharmacy counter also told customers that the pharmacy would soon begin closing for half an hour each afternoon so that pharmacists could take a lunch break.
Anne Burns, a vice president of the American Pharmacists Association, said such temporary closures have been swept across the country in pockets during the pandemic, but they have become more intense in recent months.
Pharmacies require minimal 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 rising into the pandemic, and a wave of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians left after the virus hit.
“There is a lot of tension and irritation for the individuals who have been going on this since March of 2020,” she said.
CVS Health spokeswoman TJ Crawford said he could not comment on the circumstances of a store. But he said his company “continues to manage through workforce shortages that are not unique to CVS Health.”
Rival drugstore chain Walgreens has also adjusted pharmacy hours “in a limited number of stores,” said spokesman Fraser Engerman.
Both companies are hiring.
CVS Health says it has hired 23,000 employees from a push it began in September. Of the total, about half were pharmacy technicians who could deliver vaccines.
As companies scramble to hire or retain employees, Burns and Toll worry about adding even more responsibilities like diagnosing and treating COVID-19.
Tolle said it is not yet clear how pharmacists will be reimbursed for the time it takes to diagnose and prescribe. This has to be clarified, especially if cases rise again and drugstores need to add even more workers to help.
“We want to be able to help our communities,” she said. “I don’t know how pharmacies are going to manage it.”
City employee Sherri Brown in Omaha, Nebraska, was looking for vaccine booster doses, but two nearby pharmacies didn’t have an appointment available and the third didn’t have the brand she wanted. She was shot and injured at the county-run clinic on Friday.
“I just wanted to protect myself,” said Brown, who was suffering from two weeks of cough, headache and fatigue in January when she caught the virus before being vaccinated. “I think I’ve been encouraged to see that people are taking this more seriously.”