Pharmacies still essential during Victoria’s ‘State of Disaster’


Quiet Melbourne streets during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clarification on pharmacy visits as Melbourne moves to Stage 4 restrictions with curfew and regional Victoria to Stage 3

Community pharmacies across Victoria may continue to operate as usual during the newly announced ‘State of Disaster’, although some are encouraging patients to stay home and have their medicines delivered to reduce contact during this time.

From 6pm on Sunday 2 August, Melbourne moved to Stage 4 restrictions and regional Victoria moved to Stage 3 restrictions as the number of COVID-19 cases across the state continues to rise.

Premier Daniel Andrews confirmed on Monday that there are nearly 12,000 cumulative cases in Victoria, with 429 new cases and 13 deaths.

“This six-week period [ahead] is absolutely critical. We have got to make very difficult decisions but we have to err on the side of doing everything we possibly can to drive these case numbers down,” said Mr Andrews during a press conference.

Most businesses and retail stores will be forced to shut in the state from 11.59pm on Wednesday, however pharmacies may continue to trade as they are considered “essential services”.

Meanwhile the new Stage 4 restrictions require individuals to remain within a 5km radius of their home when exercising and shopping.

Guild Victorian branch president Anthony Tassone told AJP: “We have received clarification from the Victorian State Health Minister’s office that patients are able to travel beyond a 5km radius from their home if it is for the purposes of receiving care, and this includes visiting a community pharmacy that they have an existing relationship with.

“To date, the correspondence from the office of the Victorian Health Minister has indicated that community pharmacies will definitely be able to operate throughout the Stage 4 lockdown period in metropolitan Melbourne given we are an essential service in delivery and access to primary healthcare,” he said.

“Given working in a community pharmacy is largely something that cannot be done from home, like the lockdown restrictions to date – we expect that pharmacists and pharmacy staff will continue to be treated as essential service whose children may be able to attend school if their parents or guardians cannot supervise them for remote learning from home.”

It is expected that pharmacies will be able to trade during the curfew period of metropolitan Melbourne (8pm-5am), as a permissible reason to leave home is to access care or care giving, the Guild and PSA confirmed.

“We understand pharmacies will be able to remain open after 8pm however that will be a decision of the respective proprietors,” PSA Victorian president John Jackson told AJP.

Many pharmacies across Melbourne trade over extended hours and there are also 24-hour SuperCare pharmacies that receive funding from the Victorian government.

One of these SuperCare pharmacies is Ascot Vale Pharmacy, in inner north-west Melbourne. AJP spoke with owner Jane Mitchell, who confirmed that the pharmacy will continue to operate as usual as an essential service.

“It’s hard to gauge what’s going to happen from one day to the next, every day presents new challenges and a lot rides on what the next announcements or recommendations the government are making from day to day and week to week,” she said.

“A different thing for us is we’re open 24 hours, there’s a curfew at 8pm now, but you are allowed to travel to get essential care after the curfew.”

Ms Mitchell said her staff have been coping “really, really well” under the circumstances.

However “when you get to the stage where the numbers [of COVID-19 cases] are big, it affects the morale of the community, it affects the morale of the staff, and obviously there’s a greater risk if the numbers are high that we’re going to get someone walking into the pharmacy that could have coronavirus,” she said.

Over the next six weeks, her pharmacy team will continue to emphasise medicines delivery with the hope of reducing the amount of people coming in.

“Although the community can come into the pharmacy, we’ve tried to continue to communicate to the community that we deliver and we have had an increase in deliveries and I expect that to continue,” she said.

“We’ve gone from two hours of deliveries a day to four hours of deliveries a day. What’s happened is because we’re considered an essential service people feel like they can justify an outing by coming to the pharmacy. And often the pharmacy is a chance for elderly or vulnerable people to be able to communicate once a day with someone, say hello and have a small chat, so people still want to come in. But we try and encourage delivery and contactless services. That’s a new thing for people to get their head around.”

“I understand that it’s frustrating being at home but if you can just stay at home, it’ll be over quicker”—Gabby Wilson, TerryWhite Chemmart Wodonga

Gabrielle Wilson, a pharmacist at TerryWhite Chemmart Wodonga where Stage 3 restrictions are now in effect, said her pharmacy has been doing the same thing in encouraging medicines delivery.

Stage 3 restrictions across regional Victoria mean there are only four reasons people should be away from home—for food and essential supplies, for care and healthcare, to exercise, to care and for study or work if you can’t work from home.

However Albury-Wodonga, which sits on the Victoria-NSW border, has been presented with a unique set of challenges during the pandemic crisis.

“It’s just been a crazy time around here,” she said. “It is changing every day. It has been tough because we’re right on the border. We’re pretty much one city being Albury-Wodonga—we’ve never seen it as being a border between us,” she said.

“Now needing a permit has increased the restrictions even more, you can’t really go across at all if you don’t have a valid medical reason or anything like that, it’s made it a lot more difficult.

“I was working in the Albury TerryWhite for a while and I live in Wodonga, which was generally a 10-minute commute. That’s turned into about an hour commute as we have to stop at the border, we have to show passes,” explained Ms Wilson.

“Legislatively it’s been difficult, we’ve got patients living in Wodonga that have DD scripts in Albury, and they can’t move those scripts because legally they need to be kept on file in NSW, they can’t be moved from that pharmacy. So that’s another issue. So there has been hurdles like that that really has been impacted with the border change.

“Usually we get people coming in locally that need scripts compounded as well and our compounding pharmacies are in Albury. Couriers can still come over and patients are like, ‘how am I going to get this done?’”

“Courier drivers can still come across because they’re transporting essential medicines across the border, we’re trying to get that information out there as well.

“But the thing we’re also trying to get across is that you need to stay at home. We can deliver to you, we can knock on your door, we can do contactless delivery if you can just stay at home,” she told AJP.

“People just want to get out, I understand that it’s frustrating being at home but if you can just stay at home, it’ll be over quicker.”

In the face of ongoing restrictions and the many changes facing the industry, pharmacy bodies have encouraged staff to reach out for support.

Anthony Tassone encouraged people to be mindful of mental health and wellbeing, and check on friends and colleagues in Victoria.

The PSA’s John Jackson highlighted that pharmacists are providing vital face-to-face health care to all Victorians.

“I am incredibly proud of how the profession has stood up as frontline health professionals and cared for the community during the pandemic with over 8000 pharmacists working in community pharmacies, hospitals, aged care facilities, general practice and beyond in Victoria,” he told AJP.

“This continues to be a very stressful period for pharmacists, especially those facing increased levels of restriction and greater uncertainty,” he said, encouraging staff to reach out to PSA or PSS for support.

Resources:

The Pharmacists Support Service 1300 244 910 is also available to assist any pharmacist, pharmacy intern or student experiencing stress during the pandemic.

PSA’s COVID-19 website microsite is updated daily, and alerts are placed on the ECP Facebook group as  announcements happen. Please contact PSA via membership@psa.org.au, or call the pharmacist-to-pharmacist advice line on 1300 369 772 (8.30 am – 5.00 pm weekdays).

Guild members can visit the COVID-19 hub. For queries or concerns please contact your branch or email covid-19@guild.org.au

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