Pharmacists have a key role in helping manage panic and fake news about the coronavirus – despite mainstream media accusations of profiteering
With stock of hand sanitiser and face masks running low or non-existent in many pharmacies as Australians rush to protect themselves against infectious disease, pharmacists are facing a large number of concerned patients, says Chris Freeman, national president of the PSA.
An article in the Daily Mail claimed that some pharmacies had “jacked the price up” of masks and sanitisers, while Fairfax media reported that others were selling sanitiser for more than twice the normal price.
The Age quoted a pharmacy manager who said that this price increase was “just being passed on through suppliers,” and a supplier which was attempting to manage risk of exhausting stock through increasing prices to the retailer.
“Unfortunately there have been a very few examples of where people have tried to take a view where they would profit in the short term over this current situation, and then ignoring the longer term health risk that poses when there is a short supply of masks and people do genuinely need them,” Associate Professor Freeman said.
“We’ve provided some quite strong advice to the profession that they should take the masks and put them behind the counter so they can better inform customers about whether they actually need a mask.
“The current advice is that the general public don’t need to be wearing a mask at this point in time, and won’t reduce the risk of infection from coronavirus.
“We’ve asked people – not just pharmacists, but the general public – to be judicious about their desire to have masks.
“Unfortunately, with these sorts of things, as with natural disasters, you have people panic buying things like food and essentials, and this seems to be a similar situation with people buying protective items when it’s not necessary at this point in time.”
A pharmacy owner in Eastwood, Sydney told the AJP that since fears about the coronavirus began, “it’s been very hectic and very busy” for pharmacists.
This owner was able to secure ongoing supply of masks, for which her customers have been grateful – though overall, there’s been a lot of concern about infection.
“There’s not many people walking around this Chinese New Year,” she said.
“This is the opposite to other businesses at the moment… we’re pretty popular. As soon as we open the door, they’re queuing for masks and sanitisers – it’s like rations.”
She said that pharmacy staff are stressing that personal hygiene is more important than using hand sanitiser to prevent infectious disease.
A pharmacist at one of the several Chemist Warehouse pharmacies in Chatswood, Sydney says the store is out of stock of sanitisers and masks, and that customers are constantly asking why and when stock will appear on the shelves.
“So we’ve got it on back order,” she said. “I think with Chemist Warehouse, we have so many stores so we’re rationed to spread the stock around – when stock comes in, you get a small supply.
“Certain places do have some. I went into The Reject Shop today and they had a whole lot of the surgical masks and alcohol-based stuff there, so clearly there’s some available – it’s just the pharmacy suppliers.
“People don’t think about Bunnings and other places who do have masks.”
The pharmacist said the profession was in a “tough situation” around the novel virus.
“We’re more concerned with people coming in who are already sick, not knowing what to do.
“I think there’s an element of panic – especially if they’ve been to China, which a lot of people have done for recent holidays.”
In a message to Pharmacy Guild members at the end of January 2020, national president George Tambassis wrote that the Guild acknowledged the “pressure from consumers” to supply masks.
“Where a pharmacy has stock of face masks, pharmacists should use their own judgement in responding to requests from members of the public who want to purchase them – making sure consumers are informed that the best advice we currently have from health authorities is that they do not need to be wearing masks at this time unless they fit the at-risk criteria around recent travel or contact with the virus,” he wrote.
“Obviously, many consumers will want to purchase face masks regardless of this advice, and they are entitled to make those purchases if they wish.
“However, pharmacies with stocks of face masks are also advised to keep some stock in reserve for those cases where a patient presents with symptoms and a travel history that gives rise to concern that they may have contracted novel coronavirus.”
Mr Tambassis told Fairfax Media this week that in his own pharmacy, he was limiting customers to four or five masks each unless he could establish the need for more.
Concerned by “false and misleading” rumours and social media posts about the novel coronavirus, NSW Health has issued a list of five myths to beware – and A/Prof Freeman says pharmacies can play a big part in helping dispel them.
NSW Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said there have been multiple incorrect and alarmist social media posts regarding the spread and severity of the disease, which led NSW Health to remind all residents to check their facts before believing these posts.
“I ask the public to be aware of the facts about the novel coronavirus and take a moment to investigate unverified claims before they share them with others,” Dr Chant said.
There are five key coronavirus myths which NSW Health particularly wants to address.
The first is that Australians should avoid Chinatown areas and shopping centres or suburbs with high percentages of Australians with Chinese heritage.
“While four cases have been diagnosed in NSW to date, patients have been isolated until no longer infectious and there is no evidence that community transmission is occurring in NSW,” Dr Chant said.
A/Prof Freeman told the AJP that there had been “a degree of racism” in some Australians’ response to reports about the virus.
“I’ve heard some awful stories anecdotally, around people being told to avoid people of ethnic origin because they may have the coronavirus,” he said.
“It’s not only inappropriate, but completely untrue – and it goes against most of the values Australians hold dear to themselves.”
A second myth is that coronavirus can be contracted by touching imported food packaging – however the virus does not appear to last long on surfaces, meaning imported products do not pose a risk.
Thirdly, NSW Health is concerned that some people believe garlic and sesame oil have a preventive action against novel coronavirus.
A/Prof Freeman agreed, saying that, “This feeds into the whole misinformation component, where people with other agendas are putting fake news among the public”.
“There is no evidence for those supplementary therapies having any impact on reducing the risk of someone getting coronavirus.
“The best advice is from the Chief Medical Officer: and that involves ensuring appropriate hygiene that includes appropriate techniques of handwashing, and if you are unwell with upper respiratory symptoms make sure you use appropriate tissues and things like sneezing into your elbow – to stop the spread of not only coronavirus, but other viruses and germs.”
Also untrue are claims that the virus has mutated into a more lethal strain (“debunked by the World Health Organization,” says NSW Health); and that novel coronavirus can be caught from domestic pets.
A/Prof Freeman said that pharmacists can be of particular help by explaining how to fit and wear a mask – and when use of a mask is a good idea.
“The P2 masks require appropriate fitting and usually, if fitted appropriately, it does make it a little more difficult to breathe,” he said.
“People do find that uncomfortable, but when people wear them incorrectly they won’t get any benefit.
“It’s important that if a person does decide to purchase a P2/N95 mask that they’re provided with some instruction on how to wear and fit it.
“Pharmacy has a very important role in helping to educate the general public about the appropriate precautions to take and information about the coronavirus, and to dispel some of the mistruths out there.
“It also has a really important role in helping quell some of the panic that seems to be occurring with the general public – I would encourage all members of the profession to engage in conversations with the general public to educate them and address those fears.”