How pharmacists are 'prepared to work beyond the call of duty' at Covid front line

In the first wave of Covid, pharmacists became the most accessible health-care professionals in communities across the north, adapting as the rapidly chaning situation required. Now they're preparing to support us through a tough winter, says one

Toome pharmacist Anita Gribben: 'My staff worked so hard. Everyone just got their heads down and got on with it.' Picture by Brian Thompson
Maureen Coleman

ANITA Gribbin has barely had a day off since the outbreak of Covid-19 back in March.

As a community pharmacist, based in Toomebridge, she and her staff have worked tirelessly on the front line, playing a vital role in looking after the health of their customers in such challenging times.

It's a role which has developed and adapted to meet the huge pressures of the pandemic. The arrival of Covid-19 transformed the day-to-day working lives of pharmacy staff overnight; longer hours, unfamiliar physical changes in their environment; new practices and an increase in workload.

At the height of the pandemic, Anita, who has been a community pharmacist in Toome for 27 years, found herself acting as dispenser, doctor, counsellor and friend as anxious patients turned to her for medical essentials, support and advice. With pharmacists the most accessible health-care professionals on the front line, Anita saw a huge surge in the number of people coming to her and her staff for reassurance and help.

“With GPs changing their way of working during the first wave, it meant there was a bigger demand for us,” say Anita. “Apart from queries about their physical health, I spent quite some time on the phone talking to people who were suffering from severe anxiety too, especially at the start, when there was a lot of fear and people needed reassurance.

“We have three phone lines in the shop and there were times all three phones were ringing at the same time. I've definitely seen a spike in the number of people suffering from mental health problems. People are frightened, anxious and tired. I've had calls from patients asking for advice because they've been in contact with someone who has Covid and they want to know if they should be tested. I've spoken to people who have been suicidal.

“We're still in the throes of it and we're gearing up for another hugely pressurised time as we head into winter. But we rose to the challenge the first time and we'll do it again.”

When Covid hit earlier this year and lockdown restrictions were introduced, staff at Anita Gribbin Pharmacy reacted quickly. They worked from 9am to 9pm every day, ordering in stock, dealing with a large volume of prescriptions and ensuring everything was ready to meet the onslaught. The shop was deep cleaned and Anita kitted out her staff in PPE and scrubs, at her own expense.

Following a staff meeting, the decision was taken to close the shop but keep open a small consultation room that led out to the street and where people could queue before entering, one at a time. Perspex screens were erected. Anita says her main priority was to ensure the safety of her customers and her 15 full and part-time staff.

“Back at the start of the pandemic there definitely was a lot of panic,” says Anita. “People were stockpiling. We saw a big spike in sales of thermometers, paracetamol, inhalers for children.

“We were fielding telephone calls, sorting out scripts, reassuring the public. My staff worked so hard. Everyone just got their heads down and got on with it.

“I haven't taken a break all year, not even on bank holidays. During the summer, I wanted to make sure that all the staff got time off. They were exhausted and two were shielding because they have lung conditions. One is still off.

“Everyone has worked flat out. We've had to or there was no way the work would've been done.”

Like many pharmacies across the north, Anita introduced new services including an email service to check if prescriptions were ready and a delivery service for 12 weeks for those who were shielding. She used social media more to communicate with customers and to offer advice on ways to boost the immune system.

“With patients being told not to contact their GP unless they really had to, we had so many people turn to us for advice,” says Anita.

“We had to be innovative and constantly think ahead. We had to find a new way through this. We had a reduced staff but a greater demand for our services. The email order service and the website that people could access everything in the shop from, came in handy. In these changing times of doing things, we had to be one step ahead.”

At the beginning of lockdown, the Minor Ailments Service was stood down to help relieve pressures on pharmacies but has been reintroduced from last month. Anita says it wasn't the time to stop the scheme. She says her staff are currently primed to start offering flu vaccines, not just to health-care professionals but the general public; but that she can't access the vaccine yet from its suppliers. These situations are proving frustrating when her staff are ready and able to take on the work.

Earlier this month the First Minister Arlene Foster paid tribute to community pharmacists for their service, dedication and hard work during the pandemic and the range of measures and new services that were introduced to bolster local community healthcare.

Describing a visit to one front-line pharmacy in Enniskillen as 'eye opening', the minister said Covid had placed an immense burden on pharmacy staff, who had all stepped up to put the needs of their patients first. She also said it was 'reassuring' to know that with the virus rates on the rise, community pharmacists were once again putting measures in place to meet demand.

Anita says that she and her staff have already discussed the possibility of closing the shop for a second time while keeping the consultation room open, should the numbers of people testing positive for Covid continue to climb. The delivery service will operate again and a rota system has been introduced for staff who have to work late or from home. If there is another lockdown, Anita wants her customers to know that they will still get their essential medication and that, once again, the pharmacy staff will be on hand to dispense medicine and advice.

“It seems inevitable the way things are going that we're in for a long tough winter,” says Anita, “but I'm trying not to look too far ahead.

“As a profession, I think we are extremely resilient. We've been prepared to go above and beyond the call of duty; working away in the background and not always being recognised for what we do.

“Locally, we have been lucky in that our own community is very grateful for us. From a health point of view we became a community hub. I can't say anyone was rude or abusive to us about having to social distance or wear masks. One woman complained that it was all about control, but I was polite and told her it was out of respect for my staff.

“Most people we've dealt with have just been so relieved that we've been accessible and always able to provide a good service. And as we prepare for the next few stressful months, we'll keep stepping up to the plate to look after the community.”

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