Frontline Pharmacists: Navigating Unprecedented Challenges Amid the Pandemic

While the global pandemic affected everyone's lives, some of the most impacted were those working on the frontline. Pharmacists worldwide experienced ever-evolving procedures and circumstances during the COVID response and lived through challenges on the job that profoundly transformed their roles.

Frontline Pharmacists: Navigating Unprecedented Challenges Amid the Pandemic

A proactive approach | Northland pharmacist, Tim Walker (Ngāti Manu, Ngāpuhi), can vividly recall seeing reports of the new and virulent respiratory disease erupting in Wuhan in December 2019. Early on, before any official guidelines, he and his team decided to order face masks. Tim says, "We were one of the lucky pharmacies with decent PPE." This approach would become a theme for Tim's pandemic experience: acting proactively and determining, often 'on the fly', the best, safest course, sometimes with little official direction.

Surge in workload | From introducing protocols around serving people to handling a sudden and massive influx of extra scripts, Tim recalls the intense increase in workload. "We went from a pharmacy that did say, 250 prescriptions a day, maybe 300 on a busy day, to doing 500 plus ..."

Not only were Tim and his team catering to the local population, but they were also dealing with a deluge of new patients as people fled Auckland for their Northland baches, causing the population to swell. With so many people residing in the area requiring prescriptions, advice on symptoms, and information on the virus, the workload increased tenfold. Compounding this situation were this were the issues around coordinating scripts that arrived in bulk on paper from GPs. It was a mammoth and overwhelming task.

Tim had many late nights, and several of his team suffered burnout.

Supply chain woes | One of the biggest frustrations for pharmacists was dealing with clogged and dysfunctional supply chains. Tim notes that with the massive demand for pharmaceuticals, "we were firing huge orders through and there was a real bottleneck for a lot of vital medicine." As usual medicines ran out, managing people's expectations and unearthing alternatives became a daily struggle and a significant administrative burden.

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Kerikeri Unichem Pharmacy, one of the pharmacies in the cluster Tim Walker works for.

Public facing problems | Pharmacies were not only on the coal face but became the number one destination for all things COVID: vaccines, over-the-counter pharmaceuticals and a place to discuss anxieties. Dealing with the public became increasingly demanding.

Tim recounts, "Fear does different things to different people...". He and his team experienced increasing levels of heightened unease and witnessed many examples of extreme behaviour as people's fight-or-flight response took hold. This pressure took a substantial emotional and physical toll. "By the end of it," Tim says, "I was just completely, completely burnt out, and I think most of the profession [was too]."

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Coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s. Image courtesy of The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Change in role | One of the biggest changes to pharmacies was the sudden expansion of their clinical roles. Tim says, "…giving the pharmacies themselves the ability to vaccinate was also really big, to be honest." The widening of responsibilities enabled pharmacists to inoculate those living rurally, especially as medical centres shut their doors.

Change in perception | Despite the extreme working conditions, there are some positives to emerge for pharmacies post-pandemic. Pharmacists' unwavering commitment to public health has raised awareness in the community of their essential contribution. Their importance to society, especially during extreme times, cannot be overstated.

From handling increased workloads to evolving clinical roles and managing supply chain disruptions, pharmacists rose to the occasion, displaying adaptability, grit and a remarkable commitment to the greater good. 

"You know, it was high pressure,” Tim says, "People burnt out. But yeah, I think the profession overall did amazingly. A lot of people did a lot of hard work, GPs, public health, pharmacies. Big team effort.”