‘It’s every pharmacist’s greatest fear.’

Doctor on the phone

A Sydney proprietor received that dreaded call: a person infected with COVID had been in their pharmacy… here’s what happened next

On Monday 31 August, a man who was infected with coronavirus but had no symptoms entered Balmain Community Pharmacy, situated in Sydney’s inner west, between 11am and 12pm.

He sanitised his hands when entering, walked around the store for about 5-10 minutes, did not seek service from the staff and then left. He was not wearing a mask.

On Wednesday morning, owner Caroline Diamantis received a call from the NSW Department of Health.

“The woman rang me and said, ‘I’ve got some news’, and she said ‘on the particular day – which was on Monday – it has been determined that you had a customer walk in who was tested positive for COVID,” said Ms Diamantis.

She asked NSW Health whether her pharmacy would be announced publicly, as the man was nominated as a “casual contact” given the amount of time he was there.

“The big question they asked me was, ‘can you identify or nominate to us every single customer that was in your store between 11 and 12?

“I spent a couple of hours then going through all our security cameras. And as it turns out, we had about 20 people, maybe 22, that came into the store in that hour. And we could only identify 16.

“The one thing we didn’t have, which went against me, I don’t have a QR code. NSW Health will give you a free QR code system when you register as a COVIDSafe business,” she said.

“You can show the QR code at the door and ask customers to sign as they come in.

“I thought that it probably wouldn’t be necessary, but if I had, they wouldn’t have made it a public announcement, which they had to do because I couldn’t contact those few.”

Ms Diamantis soon realised she would have to make some difficult choices on how to tell her customers, after realising her pharmacy had been visited by a coronavirus case and it was going to be publicly announced.

“It’s been an absolute rollercoaster of emotions, it’s every pharmacists’ greatest fear,” she told AJP.

“I did a lot of crying and I was really quite traumatised. It was just like, I don’t need this, we’ve all got so much going on. Pharmacy has been at the frontlines through this whole pandemic. We have been selfless, we have copped anything from abuse to dealing with drug shortages to dealing with administering the law. It’s already been an extremely difficult and exhausting period, and then in the back of your mind you’re constantly thinking, let’s keep the staff safe, let’s keep the customers safe.

And then your worst fear is realised when you get the phone call and you think, well now I’ve got to find the best way to deal with it.

Thankfully, as the man was considered a casual contact, the pharmacy staff did not need to self isolate. However they have been encouraged to monitor for symptoms.

Ms Diamantis had to organise deep cleaning of the store, which was conducted by the pharmacy staff themselves following NSW Health guidelines.

Meanwhile she made the decision to pick up the phone and personally call each of the 16 people she had identified in her pharmacy during that particular hour, to tell them there had been a case and reassure them it was a casual contact.

“Basically after I told every person by phone, I then went on Facebook and made the public announcement and shared that to the local pages,” said Ms Diamantis.

She also put signs up around the pharmacy that detailed information about casual contacts and the case in question, encouraging people to speak to her if they had any concerns.

“In our suburb, there had been three or four previous cases in other stores, including in a chemist,” she said. “The community was angry and talking about boycotting particular businesses because they felt the response was poor.

“The last time it was made public that the local business didn’t say anything, there were like 184 comments within half an hour that were all very negative and derogatory, and I felt for that business because it was obviously challenged on how to deal with it.

“My plan of action was full honesty, and I was going to go above and beyond anything that was needed,” she said.

“I was going to be proud that I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I was also going to be proud that I had accounted for everybody else’s feelings regardless at the end of the day about the financial impact—you deal with what you have to deal with if it comes.

“I had people ringing and thanking me. People were writing in the comments, ‘Thank you Caroline, you are our favourite pharmacy and once again you’ve gone above and beyond’ and ‘you’ve been admirable in your honesty, this can’t be easy for you’. There was so much positivity. And seriously, I think in the end I made the right decision.”

Her tips for pharmacies from her experience are:

  1. Be serious about your COVID safety plan: NSW Health interviewed Ms Diamantis for half an hour asking what her COVID safety plan was. “They will quiz you on what you’ve done,” she said. “They want to hear that you’re doing a major clean every day, which means sanitising all the public spaces.”
  2. Make sure people are not in the pharmacy for more than 10 minutes: Ensure people don’t wait in the shop, said Ms Diamantis. “We don’t have seats for people to sit down on anymore, we don’t have areas where they can find themselves waiting in the shop. When people have a script to drop off and they say they’ll wait, we go, ‘no, can you go and do something else, grab a cup of coffee or walk down the street’. People should come in and go out very quickly because anything under 10 minutes means that you’re pretty much casual contact. Otherwise you might need to shut and possibly need a more comprehensive clean and to self isolate.”
  3. Reassurance, honesty and understanding: “I feel like the take-home message is, just try and be honest and frank and talk about it, and show people you’re doing the very best that you can,” she said. “I don’t think it’s necessary to apologise, but you can be certainly empathetic and say, look nobody wants this, we didn’t plan this.”
  4. Support your staff: Ms Diamantis sat down with her staff first and explained the situation to them, and then she spoke with them one by one, providing them with a NSW Health information sheet about casual contacts. “All my staff were very understanding of it. We watched the security footage and actually identified the person we believe it was,” she said. “So we thought, now we see who that is and we can see that it was quite innocuous. So I showed my staff that, and that made them feel better.
    “I’ve got one lady who has health issues and I said to her, ‘look you’ve got a mask on and you work in the office area, you don’t work on the floor – you’ll be fine. But, if you feel anything that you want to talk to me about, please do’.”
  5. Use QR Codes: If the technology is available in your state, register as a COVIDSafe business and use the QR code provided, so you can keep track of all customers and follow up more easily after a confirmed positive case.

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  1. Kay Dunkley

    Well done Caroline for handling this in such a professional manner. You looked after both your customers and your staff so well.

  2. Amandarose

    Very different from our experience- early on in Covid we had a patient. The patient told us not the health dept and she spent over and 1 hr in the pharmacy and medical centre, saw podiatry, paid in cash.
    We called the public health offering names of patients in at the same time and they were not even interested. They never contacted the medical centre either.
    This was back in April when they wouldn’t even say what town cases were in .

  3. Adewale Olanrewaju

    Outstanding, professional response by Caroline…❤️❤️❤️

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