Hoax COVID-19 call made to Chemist Warehouse

pharmacist phone call PSS support mental health

A retail manager has called for pharmacies to be vigilant after an “absolutely disgusting” prank call sparked a store closure

At 4.40pm on Friday, the Chemist Warehouse Sebastopol in Ballarat received a telephone call.

“We had a person call our store impersonating a person of authority from the Ballarat Base Hospital, stating to us that they did have a patient that had tested positive, and had been in our store twice in the last two days,” retail manager Madison Dodds told the AJP.

The caller told the staff to close and evacuate the pharmacy, and that a team had been organised to come and deep clean it.

“We closed our store immediately, and I notified all my staff members, who obviously were very distressed and upset about the situation,” Ms Dodds said.

The team on site began to clean the staff area, waiting for the cleaners from the hospital to arrive, while Ms Dodds worked to keep staff calm and let them know that counselling would be available if they needed it.

By 6.30, the pharmacy’s owner had been notified, as had Chemist Warehouse head office and the sister store in Ballarat, who were warned that they might see an influx of patients redirected from the closed Sebastopol store.

The hospital cleaners, however, had not arrived, and Ms Dodds decided to call the hospital herself.

“I spoke to David, at Ballarat Base, who is in charge of all the COVID patients there, and he said he hadn’t heard anything. So that’s when we contacted the COVID hotline, and spoke to people there.

“It would have been a quarter past seven when I’d spoken to all the appropriate authorities to confirm that it was a hoax.”

She said that while the pharmacy owner decided that all the staff would be paid for their shifts, there was a ripple effect for everyone involved, from staff who had been at work when the call was made, to off-duty team members, and their friends and families. Alerts about the closure had been “all over Facebook and social media,” she said.

“It was a bit of a rollercoaster of emotion,” Ms Dodds said. “It was really stressful for my staff – they’re already stressed throughout this, working in a pharmacy, and a lot of my staff are quite young girls, too, sixteen and seventeen.”

She said that the pharmacy has “all precautions in place,” including the mandatory wearing of masks during opening hours for the last three weeks, but the workers’ frontline role in a pandemic has already been difficult for them.

She urged workers and owners at other pharmacies to “be really vigilant” if they are contacted about a potential infection.

Commenting on this and other COVID-19-related hoaxes in the Herald Sun, a spokesperson for Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services called the behaviour “appalling” and suggested that false claims around the pandemic should be referred to police.

“This was an absolutely disgusting joke,” said Ms Dodds.

“It’s not funny, and we all need to stand together as a community and do everything in our power to help each other.”

Readers who are distressed can contact the Pharmacists’ Support Service on 1300 244 910.

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