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The Covid-19 crisis has taught us how co-operation can bring about rapid changes, writes Fintan Moore

There is an old Chinese curse that says: ‘May you live in interesting times’, and the last two months have been more interesting than I ever want to see again, with a lot more yet to come. The Covid-19 experience of pharmacists has of course varied massively. Some of us have worked through the pandemic up close and personal, while others have been fortunate enough to simply work through Pandemic on Netflix. I suspect that in the years to come, a lot of us in the former group will feel quietly superior to those in the latter. Naturally, we’ll be too polite to say anything, at least until we’re midway through our third drink! What has been a remarkable positive in a grim time has been the speed at which changes in legislation and PCRS protocols have been achieved. There has been talk of emailing prescriptions for decades, but progress was happening only glacially until the pandemic occurred. The newly-permitted option for doctors to healthmail prescriptions has been a huge help to us in looking after patients. Similarly, our workload has been made easier by the facility to extend the expiry dates on private prescriptions, and the PCRS permission to photocopy GMS prescriptions.

For these changes to occur took a better level of understanding and engagement by Simon Harris than I would have anticipated. Huge credit is due to the people in the IPU who have clearly developed the necessary relationships with decision-makers in the Department of Health and the HSE so that rapid progress was possible. Despite the times that the IPU has butted heads with these organisations, the required level of trust and co-operation was maintained, which is commendable. If you want to get a contrasting picture of what a lack of engagement by officialdom looks like, then take a look at what the Irish Dental Association has been saying about how the pandemic has caused community dental services to collapse, with nothing set up to fill the void.

Sniffing Out Trouble

Sometimes in life you get to do the right thing because you were smart, or skilful, or worked hard, but then you get the moments that come down to nothing more than sheer dumb luck. In the very early days of the pandemic landing seriously in Ireland, I was driving to work with Newstalk on the radio. 

On a different morning it might have been Nova or Today FM, but on that particular morning it was Newstalk, and I caught the end of a phone-in section, during which a doctor was taking callers’ questions about Covid-19. A man rang in to say that he had suddenly lost his sense of smell, and he had read online that this was sometimes a symptom of Covid-19. 

The doctor clearly hadn’t heard of this link before but politely suggested that the guy check with his own GP. Coincidentally, later that day in the pharmacy, a lady came to the counter and said that she had lost her sense of smell. I kept a safe distance and prefacing my advice with the phrase, ‘I don’t want to be alarmist, but… ’ 

I advised her to get tested. I think she thought I was nuts, but about three weeks later she dropped a box of cupcakes into the pharmacy as a thank-you because she had got tested and was positive. She was now fully recovered. Her early detection was particularly useful because she is a nurse in a hospital. As I said at the outset — sometimes, you just get lucky.

Will there be a Post-Apocalypse?

The billion-euro question when it comes to lockdown and social distancing is, ‘when will it all be over’? My own speculation leads me to the point where I believe that there won’t be an ‘over’, at least not unless there is an effective vaccine created with a mass vaccination programme. Unfortunately, that will not happen soon, and our society and economy will need to re-open before then, so we will have to cope with a continuous level of infections that will occasionally spike in areas or institutions. 

The danger posed to the elderly and vulnerable is almost unthinkable, but given that they frequent our premises, we will need to do some thinking. Of the measures in place in our pharmacies, how many might we need to keep? I have Perspex screens up at the counter, which might become permanent. We try to spray door handles and surfaces with alcohol every 30 minutes, which is a sustainable measure. Keeping numbers down to no more than three or four people waiting in the pharmacy is possibly manageable long term. The stickers on the floor to aid spacing can also stay. Maybe it will be pointless to keep measures in place in pharmacies when schools and bars will be spreading infection, but it might at least protect ourselves and our staff. Whatever happens, I think we’re in for a new kind of ‘normal’.

<strong>Fintan Moore</strong>
Fintan Moore

Fintan Moore graduated as a pharmacist in 1990 from TCD and currently runs a pharmacy in Clondalkin.