Community pharmacists and COVID-19

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As businesses including pubs, gyms and beauty salons close tonight to promote social distancing, community pharmacies remain open as one of the most essential services. 

Pharmacist Matthew Soliman MPS works across four pharmacies in South Australia. He said the biggest problem he faces at the moment is ‘the unknown’. 

Despite Australians being urged not to stockpile to ensure equitable access to medicines, Mr Soliman said customers were still attempting to purchase more than they need. 

‘People are confused; they don’t know if they’re going to end up in quarantine,’ he said.

Matthew Soliman MPS

‘I think that’s a big part of the stocking up mentality – people don’t know whether to panic … We can give people an idea of what to expect using other countries as a model, but the truth is – we don’t know.’ 

There are now restrictions in place that require pharmacists to limit the dispensing of certain prescriptions to 1 month’s supply. Pharmacists are also strongly encouraged to limit the dispensing and sale of all other medicines to 1 month’s supply or one unit.

Pharmacists are also now required to place paracetamol paediatric formulations behind the counter and to follow new procedures for dispensing salbutamol, including labelling the product and recording the supply.

New South Wales-based pharmacist Kelly Lim MPS said these recent initiatives are positive steps to address the hoarding she has seen. 

‘A lot of people are starting to panic-buy their medicines; they’re not buying based on need but just in case,’ she said.

‘We’re getting a lot more requests for Ventolin, cold and flu medicine and paracetamol – we’re getting calls all day long asking if we have any.’

Ms Lim said it was important to explain to customers why the restrictions are necessary.

‘Some of our elderly customers are a bit worried that they might not be able to leave their homes for various reasons, and I know some pharmacists have been getting abused by customers who haven’t been able to get more repeats,’ she said.

Kelly Lim MPS

‘I try and explain the reasons behind it and I have printed out some information to give them. I also tell customers that I can remind them when their scripts are due. This way, we’re not giving them an early supply but we’re making it easier for them.’

PSA has created a poster explaining the changes that pharmacists can print out here

Along with asthma  medicines and paracetamol, Mr Soliman said hand sanitiser was the most-requested item at the pharmacies he works in.

However, with out-of-stocks across the country, he said customers had been compounding their own formulas, often with problematic results.  

‘I’ve had to talk a few people out of it,’ Mr Soliman said.

‘They come into the pharmacy so confident and happy that they’ve come up with a formula and I need to tell them it can have bad outcomes.’

Mr Soliman pointed to a man who had been using a combination of aloe vera gel and lighter fluid as an at-home hand sanitiser. 

‘He kept putting more and more on and then lit a cigarette – he set his hand on fire,’ Mr Soliman said.

‘That’s a more extreme case, but you do need to tell people to be careful.’

Taking precautions

Both Mr Soliman and Ms Lim said their pharmacies had been introducing measures to help protect pharmacists and their customers from the spread of COVID-19. 

‘We have hand sanitiser on the counter, which we encourage every customer to use,’ Mr Soliman said.

‘We also wipe down benches after every customer and have put signs up outside asking people not to enter the pharmacy if they have symptoms or are meant to be self-isolating.’

Ms Lim said she was considering putting safety tape 1.5 metres from the counter so people know where to stand.

Other pharmacists have reported:

  • Asking customers to drop cash into buckets of soapy water
  • Allowing only a limited number of customers inside a pharmacy at once
  • Marking the floor to indicate where people should stand to follow social distancing guidelines
  • Removing testers from shelves
  • Not sharing pens. 
Coronavirus (COVID-19) information for pharmacists 
For PSA’s latest information, updates and advice on the novel coronavirus outbreak, click here.