What the vaccine rollout is like for three community pharmacists
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Ambar Keluskar is tired. He’s a pharmacist at his family’s business, Rossi Pharmacy in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York, and he’s consumed by the effort to vaccinate his customers against COVID-19.
“I’m definitely working probably close to 70 to 80 hours a week. When I’m not working, I’m just constantly thinking about it,” he said last week from his home, where he was tying up loose ends after seeing 300 patients who showed up for the pharmacy’s last vaccination clinic. “We’ve been working around the clock to make sure that we enter all the paperwork by the deadlines,” Keluskar said.
Across the country, pharmacies are struggling with insufficient staffing and facing endless phone calls from people trying to make appointments. They run into other problems, too, like patients who think one dose of a two-dose vaccine is enough.
The customer area of Rossi Pharmacy is tiny at maybe 150 square feet, just enough room for a glass case filled with bottles of Tylenol, Flintstone vitamins and various medications, and for a few people, at most, to stand six feet apart.
Earlier this week, Keluskar showed off the area where people were getting the Moderna vaccine, through a door and down a narrow hallway lined with chairs.
“This area was never actually meant to keep patients,” Keluskar said. “But we adapted.”
Because the pharmacy is so small, it’s also been holding vaccine clinics at community centers. Sometimes people don’t show up for their appointments
“Thankfully, we’ve never had to waste any vaccines. But there are some days where I have to wait on the site an extra hour, an hour and a half, for those last doses to get used,” he said.
These clinics are exhausting for the pharmacists, partly because they end up having the same conversation dozens of times.
“You know, ‘Hey, come on back, how you doing? How are things going?’ and then explaining what vaccine they’re getting, and talking them through the side effects,” said Rebecca Lahrman, a pharmacist at Shrivers Pharmacy and Wellness in Athens, Ohio, which mostly administers Moderna vaccines.
“While those conversations are important, and they’re necessary, sometimes I feel like a robot saying the same thing over and over again,” she said.
If you run into this when you’re getting vaccinated, keep in mind that your pharmacist has been at this all day. “They might be hungry,” Lahrman said. “They might have to pee. Or they might just be struggling, right?”
Health care workers are feeling a lot of pressure to get this right: to make sure the vaccines are stored correctly, that no one is having an allergic reaction and that they’re answering everyone’s questions.
About 150 miles away from Shrivers, at Hart Pharmacy in Cincinnati, Sarah Priestle is in the thick of all those questions.
“Right or left arm, sir?” she asked a man about to get a shot.
“Should it be one you don’t use as often?” he asked.
“So there’s some theory that the dominant arm is better because you’re going to move that more …” Priestle began.
Priestle’s grandfather opened this pharmacy in 1960. Inside, the walls are paneled with wood, and there’s a flying pig (a Cincinnati mascot) hanging from the ceiling.
Priestle, who owns the pharmacy now, has also started making house calls. She just vaccinated a woman who couldn’t come to the pharmacy and hadn’t seen her grandkids all year because of the pandemic.
“I think it brought her a lot of comfort, and a feeling that she was going to get some of that part of her life back,” Priestle said.
The conversations she is having with customers have become more complicated because of the pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which Hart Pharmacy has been using. When the news came on Tuesday, Priestle had to cancel all appointments.
So far, six people have reported blood clots after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, out of 6.8 million doses administered in the U.S. “I understand that we need to assess safety, but it does make me worry that the vaccine hesitancy that already was there is going to be more pronounced,” Priestle said.
A lot of medications can cause rare but serious side effects, she added, it’s about weighing the risks and benefits. That’s what she plans to tell patients.
In the meantime, she just got word that she’ll be getting a shipment of Moderna vaccines.
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