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'People forget about us': Pharmacists concerned over lack of government-issued PPE

The Canadian Pharmacists Association wants to ensure its members are given the same protections as other essential healthcare workers during the COVID-19 outbreak, especially when it comes to accessing personal protective equipment.

National association doesn’t want the industry overlooked during the COVID-19 outbreak

Pharmacist and pharmacy owner Mike Cavanagh is concerned he's going to run out of the masks staff wear to screen patients before allowing them inside. (Supplied/Mike Cavanagh)

The Canadian Pharmacists Association wants to ensure its members are given the same protections as other essential healthcare workers during the COVID-19 outbreak, especially when it comes to accessing personal protective equipment (PPE).

The association said pharmacists are currently not receiving PPE from the government. The organization said it understands supply is limited, and must be allocated properly, but it would like pharmacists to be part of the distribution.

"Community pharmacists are really on the frontline of what's going on right now," the association's director of practice development Shelita Dattani said.

Dattani said there's concern patients who may be exposed to the virus are still going to the pharmacies where staff have no PPE to protect themselves. 

Canadian Pharmacists Association director of practice development Shelita Dattani said she doesn’t want the industry overlooked during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Supplied/Canadian Pharmacists Association )

She said pharmacies could previously order PPE from suppliers, but with a limited global supply chain, there isn't any available. 

The association also wants pharmacists to be supported and recognized as other frontline health workers have been during the pandemic, which includes access to mental health services and COVID-19 testing when it becomes more widely available.

It also wants pharmacists and pharmacy staff to be able to access child-care centres that have opened up in some provinces, including Ontario, for other essential health workers. 

"Sometimes people forget about us," Dattani said. 

'We just need to be included'

Pharmacist Mike Cavanagh owns two pharmacies in Lindsay, where the majority of his clients are elderly. 

Earlier this week he enacted a new screening process based on travel history, contact with positive cases and symptoms, before allowing patients into the pharmacies.

Cavanagh said on the first day of screening three people were turned away at one location. He said the screening has provided the opportunity to not only protect staff and the public, but to educate patients on the symptoms of COVID-19, the importance of quarantining after travel and practicing physical distancing. 

If patients are turned away, the pharmacy delivers medication to them if possible.

Staff wear a mask when screening patients thanks to a community member who donated 20 of them — but there still aren't enough.

"At the rate we're going now that will probably only last about 10 days," Cavanagh said in an interview earlier this week.

"We're not trying to say one deserves something more than the other," he said, adding he understands hospitals should get first priority to PPE. "We just need to be included in that consideration as well just because we are seeing so many patients."

Cavanagh said pharmacists are known for being the most accessible healthcare practitioners. He said his busiest pharmacy sees around 200 patients a day, including in-person consultations with about 40 people.

"We're seeing multiple patients, probably more patients than other healthcare providers on a daily basis," he said. "We want to make sure that we're safe as well."

Protecting staff and patients

Pharmacies are taking different approaches to protecting staff and patients based on advice from the national association, which includes installing protective shields and putting markers on the floor to ensure customers lineup at least six feet apart.

In addition to the screening centre, Cavanagh ordered shields for his two pharmacies and has already put the lineup markers on the floor. His staff is also doing three times the amount of medication deliveries as usual.

Some pharmacies have installed plastic shields to protect pharmacy staff and patients during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Angelina King/CBC)

Pharmacists are being encouraged to limit patients to only receiving a one-month supply of a medication at a time to ensure there's enough for everyone.

When asked about considering pharmacists as essential frontline health workers and ensuring they have access to PPE, Health Canada deferred the question to Ontario's health ministry.

A spokesperson for the province's Minister of Health Christine Elliot said while the role of pharmacists is valued, the global supply chain for PPE is extremely strained.

"Personal protective equipment is being prioritized for frontline workers who may experience exposure (close contact within two meters) to members of the public who are symptomatic," Hayley Chazan wrote in a statement.

She pointed to the province's new website that helps businesses and the government work together to address shortages by removing barriers to allow companies to produce masks, swabs and ventilators.

About the Author

Angelina King is a reporter with CBC Toronto where she covers a wide range of stories. She has a particular interest in crime, legal and justice issues and human interest stories. She previously reported on national and international news. Angelina got her start in her home city of Saskatoon where she spent much of her time covering the courts. You can contact her at angelina.king@cbc.ca or @angelinaaking

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