One pharmacist has slept in his pharmacy for the last seven nights, and another drove through an emergency alert area to open his store, as fires rage across Tasmania
At the time of writing on Wednesday, the Tasmania Fire Service had 12 emergency warnings active across the island state, primarily in its southeast.
Ian Magill, owner of the Geeveston Pharmacy, told the AJP that while many people in town have been evacuated, he has stayed behind to fight for his pharmacy and to do his best to ensure remaining residents have access to their medicines.
“I live in Hobart, about 70km away, but I own the pharmacy and the building and I decided to stay and fight,” he said.
“I’ve been sleeping in the pharmacy the last seven days, in the back. I’ve been up on the roof very frequently, filling the gutters up and clearing debris, and I’ve got firefighting equipment.
“It’s a bit precarious. We were told to evacuate, but I said no.”
Mr Magill says that he has been on the phone “non-stop,” talking to people who need their medicines.
“People have panicked. A lot of patients have left town, and left without medication. I’ve been doing medication deliveries as best I can.”
He said that yesterday he had been contacted by a patient desperate to get access to her medicines, and told her he would be there in a couple of hours – only to find she had been evacuated when he arrived.
“There’s continuity of opioid replacement therapy as well. I only have a couple of guys, and they’ve stayed – if I left they’d be stuffed, because the highways are blocked.”
Mr Magill says that he’s retained a sense of humour about the situation, despite the exhaustion and the lack of amenity of the pharmacy’s back room.
“We’ve still got the NBN, so I’ve got Netflix,” he says. “I’m getting more used to the uncomfortableness of the couch out the back.”
He’s also been joking on social media with a local doctor about the appearance of the fire front.
However, “I feel absolutely f****ed, and you can quote that!” he says.
Meanwhile in nearby Dover, Dover Pharmacy owner Fred Helquvist had to find a new way into town after roads were closed.
A paramedic was flown in to help the local GP, but the pharmacist was left behind.
“In the end I had to drive through an emergency area to get here,” Mr Helquvist told the AJP. “It obviously wasn’t ideal, but I had to get down here and make sure I could open the pharmacy, because if not people will start to call Triple Zero.”
He said that the town was at a “critical period” now, and expected to be cut off by noon, though the pharmacy is not in the direct line of fire. It had already experienced one power surge and Mr Helquvist said he was worried about the fridge.
“I’m working very closely with doctors and the Department of Health to try to ensure medicines supply,” he says.
However, until around 11.30am he worked alone on Wednesday, until one other staff member arrived.
“You can’t expect them to show up, depending on their particular situation,” he says.
Patients were just grateful that the pharmacy was open, he told the AJP.
“We’re kind of the hub – in all small towns the pharmacy tends to become the hub and people get stressed when things are closed.
“It’s one of those critical things – if we can safely do our bit, and if people don’t start calling Triple Zero, then it will help to offload [stress from] the whole system.”
President of the Pharmacy Guild – Tasmanian Branch John Dowling says the bushfire situation “just highlights that community pharmacy is an important part of all this, and that maintaining the supply chain is vital to keep the community going”.
He says the Guild has been lobbying for some time for an extension of the emergency supply provisions, and that disasters such as bushfires were a good example of the need for change.
“It’s one of those instances where we think a bit more leeway would allow pharmacists to better help their communities,” he says.
“That they want to not break the law to help people take their medication correctly is quite sensible.”
Mr Magill said that the Guild has been “great,” with state branch director Monique Mackrill in frequent touch with him discussing disaster plans.
Meanwhile Asthma Australia has warned people with the condition to take extra precautions due to the poor air quality.
Please be careful of the poor air quality in #Tasmania due to #smoke and #bushfires. People may experience breathing difficulties – keep #asthma reliever medication on hand, and be sure to avoid exposure where possible! https://t.co/hj3ZT8WNq5
— Asthma Australia (@AsthmaAustralia) January 30, 2019
Mr Magill said that his pharmacy had sold “hundreds of per cent more Ventolin” in the last few days than ever before.
And while he doesn’t have asthma himself, “Even I’m suffering personally from the smoke.
“The fire’s only a few kilometres away, so it’s very thick and smoky.”
Readers who are distressed can contact the Pharmacists’ Support Service on 1300 244 910.