Sydney pharmacies respond to outbreak crisis as Premier gives the green light to vaccinate people aged 40 and up
Community pharmacies across NSW will be mobilised to administer the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to people aged 40 and over, Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on Monday.
This expands the pool of eligible individuals as pharmacists had originally been accepted to administer the vaccine only to people aged 60 and over, primarily in a small number of regional and rural pharmacies.
The premier’s decision came as Sydney faces a mounting crisis, with reported COVID-19 cases continuing to rise significantly each day.
There have now been more than 600 locally acquired cases reported over the past month.
Pharmacy Guild NSW Branch President David Heffernan said his team has been “working very closely with the premier’s office, the office of the health minister and Kerry Chant, offering our help in any way possible to address the emergency situation in Sydney”.
However actually receiving the vaccine may take weeks, he warned, and access to stock will depend on Commonwealth allocation.
“We’ve been given the green light, now we have to wait for the vaccine,” he said.
“Our position is that Sydney should be made a priority, we’ve had on preventable death of a 90-year old, we don’t want any more. We would want the vaccine in pharmacies as soon as possible so people in lockdown can go to their local community pharmacy, not go to other mass congregation areas for a vaccine, but we’re working closely with all levels of government to do that.”
NSW Health said it is currently prioritising vaccination for the Fairfield, Canterbury Bankstown and Liverpool local government areas where there is greater concern of COVID-19 transmission.
Mr Heffernan added: “In the meantime, I’d ask all pharmacies who have registered through the EOI process to ensure they’re up to date with the COVID module, and with all the NSW and Commonwealth directives.”
The branch president also shared concerns about the growing pandemic crisis in Sydney.
“We’re very concerned about this lockdown. Pharmacy is facing a crisis not of their doing, while we are still fulfilling our community obligations in trying to stay open, it is much more onerous circumstances this time around,” said Mr Heffernan.
“The criteria for face masks for distancing is much stricter where there is less emphasis on public cooperation, but more emphasis on businesses complying which seems unfair.
“We are making those representations loud and clear to both state and federal governments.”
Four cases in one week
Catherine Bronger, proprietor of Chemistworks Wetherill Park in Sydney’s western suburbs, agreed that the government requirements have become stricter this time around – placing pressure on both her team and the business.
Her pharmacy is one of at least 26 Sydney pharmacies that have been visited by a COVID-19 case in recent days, some by multiple cases.
“We had four positive cases come through [the pharmacy] last week. All the staff are safe thank goodness, no one’s testing positive at all but it makes running a business really difficult,” she told AJP.
“We’re a 24/7 pharmacy right in the middle of the hotspot. With contact tracing, it’s four days before [NSW Health] get in touch with us at all.”
Ms Bronger said thankfully they were casual contacts – meaning they were in the pharmacy for less than 15 mins – but concerningly they came in for cold and flu preparations.
“That goes to the government’s concern that people are really not understanding the importance of making sure they get tested beforehand. Patients are really just not understanding that,” she said.
“When English isn’t your first language which often isn’t in western Sydney, the understanding and health literacy is quite low. We’ve got signs in Arabic and English outside our pharmacy.”
Ms Bronger has had to carefully organise her team to keep up with NSW Health rules should close contact exposure occur.
“With casual contacts – the staff have to get a negative test. If they were in the store any longer than 15 minutes, then they become a close contact and the whole staff has to isolate for 14 days. Our Wetherill Park store is quite a large store, but in the average pharmacy, how can you have 50% of your staff not work for two weeks? It makes it extraordinarily difficult.
“We had to isolate our till staff where in the first round we didn’t. If the testing was done before the fifth day, they have to test again. I’ve had to pull some pharmacists off to say, I’m going to pay for you to sit at home because I need to keep operating a 24-hour pharmacy and I think sooner or later a team is going shut down, not because I think they will get COVID but because the government is being stricter on who had to go into isolation,” she said.
“We’ve split our stores up so our front-of-shop staff have a completely different staff room to dispensary, and then we have A, B ,C and D teams so we make sure there’s no crossover between the staff. We’ve also split the pharmacists so one pharmacist doesn’t work with another pharmacist.
“Now we’re limiting five prescription customers at any time, we’re making people wait outside even though we’ve got a fairly large store, we’ve got pharmacists wearing PPE, temperature checking. In the pharmacy when you run your procedures, you’ve really got to go to the next level and have heightened strict procedures because we’ve got to keep the staff safe.”
Meanwhile she said some of her staff who want to get vaccinated haven’t been able to do so.
“It’s two, three, four weeks out since they’ve been trying to make these bookings. They’re in the 1a and the 1b group, but they haven’t been able to get the bookings.
“They’re making such a big deal about aged care workers but what about pharmacists and pharmacy assistants, who are seeing these people coming in for cold and flu medications, who are seeing immunocompromised patients? They’re not getting priority treatment.”
Ms Bronger welcomed the announcement from the premier that pharmacists could soon start vaccinating people aged 40 and over, but said more clarity was needed.
PSA National President, Associate Professor Chris Freeman said it was “very good news”.
“Pharmacists are the most obvious solution to increasing accessibility to vaccinations,” said A/Prof Freeman.
“Pharmacists are trained, experienced, easily accessible, and close to home for many people.
“Now we need the rest of the states and territories to follow New South Wales’ lead on this, and once onshore, all COVID-19 vaccines need to be made available through the community pharmacy. All Australians should have the option to go to their local pharmacist for their specifically recommended vaccine because it is so easy and simple to do,” he said.
Update: Ms Bronger informed the AJP after this article was written that she found out she’d had two more COVID-19 cases come through her Chemistworks Wetherill Park over the weekend, plus a third case in a separate Priceline store. Thankfully one of the cases was effectively screened out the front of the store, and went to get tested instead of entering.