Fintan Moore tries his best to find a silver lining amid the gloom and gravity of the Covid-19 pandemic and finds it in the response of community pharmacists

 I usually try to find the lighter side of pharmacy life to write about, but there’s really only one story in town at the moment and at time of writing, 900 people in the country have now been diagnosed with Covid-19, and a fourth person has just died. Given the potential for this virus to exponentially expand the number of people infected with a speed that could overwhelm our health service, I have no idea what the landscape will be by the time you read this. It is possible that the actions of the Government to close schools, cancel gatherings, etc, will all have combined successfully to ‘flatten the curve’ and the worst-case scenario will have been averted. It is also possible that the measures were insufficient or applied too late or that the public did not heed them adequately, so we will be facing the grim prospect of a replica of the Italian experience. I think the reality will be closer to the better-case outcome, but if it’s the latter then an article about some of the positive aspects to be garnered from this crisis may appear crass and inappropriate, so I apologise in advance. On the other hand, maybe looking for the silver lining might be helpful to people. So here goes for the bright side…

We stepped up. As a profession, we community pharmacists didn’t have the luxury of shutting-down contact with the public and working from home. We had the completely opposite experience, starting in particular on the mid-morning of Thursday 12 March, when a panicked population blitzed pharmacies and supermarkets in their droves. For the next week in particular, every day was like the last stand at the Alamo as patients who were due to get their medication arrived, along with a large cohort of patients coming early ‘just in case’. Rejecting requests from people for two or three months’ supplies of medication took up more valuable time. The mix was swelled by the numbers stocking-up on paracetamol, ibuprofen, etc. The sheer volume of work left precious little time to wash hands or use alcohol gel, so we were very much in the firing line. The extent to which we were exposed to risk and so many others were not can be seen by the lack of traffic at ‘rush-hour’, as people who could stay at home did. But there was a job to be done, and we did it.

We were lucky to have work. Granted, our work was more pressurised than usual, and hygiene requirements created worries as you took heed of every coughing and spluttering patient standing at the counter leaning their elbows on it, or plonking their handbags on it, or tapping it with their hands. But at least we had jobs to be busy in. Tens of thousands of people who were newly-unemployed would have been delighted to have our problems. Sanitising hands and spraying counters with methylated spirits beats sitting at home worrying about the bills landing in through the letterbox.

Patients were grateful. We were busy, in conditions that were manic with minimal time to talk to them, wholesale deliveries that were erratic, and when people were in the shop we were trying to keep them all two metres away from us and each other as often as possible. But the vast majority of them appreciated what we were doing, and even the fact that we were there at all. 

This may not exactly be a positive, but hopefully the wholesalers will have learned a few things from the mayhem that we had to deal with, and they will take steps to manage better in the future. Apparently, bulk ordering by some pharmacies effectively crashed the system. Perhaps the more accurate summation would be that by choosing to deliver large bulk orders, the wholesalers crashed their own systems. 

Whatever went wrong, the disruption to the supply chain contributed more to my workplace difficulties than any other single factor. The experience seems to have also been stressful for the workers in the wholesalers, so let’s hope for improvements.

The powers-that-be left us alone to focus on our patients. The PCRS showed a level of pragmatism that exceeded what I thought they might be capable of in allowing us the leeway to sort out the medication for patients without having the precise paperwork in place. They were slower than I would have liked in suspending the requirement to get patient signatures, but other than that, they were very reasonable — assuming, of course, that we get paid! In a similar fashion, the PSI also cleared the pitch so we could do the right thing for each patient instead of fretting about the legality of the prescriptions landing in by fax/email/phone-call/ screenshot. 

We looked out for each other. The collegiality shown by pharmacists sharing advice, reassurance, information and sympathy was commendable across the three online forums, Irish Pharmacy Forum, Pharmabuddy and Poitigeir, as well as via Facebook and WhatsApp. At times that people could feel overwhelmed, it was good to have fellow professionals to rely on. 

Well done, all, and good luck.