Our pharmacies are vital to supporting a well-functioning healthcare system. We rely on them for medicines, health checks, testing and prescription processing, and public-facing consultations. Even more now than ever, pharmacy staff are being leant on by colleagues across the sector as a frontline, patient facing profession to ease pressure on hospitals. The coronavirus crisis has placed unprecedented demand on pharmacy staff and community pharmacies which are still functioning, albeit in a reduced fashion. Following the PPE supply issues which arose in April, fears arose that frontline pharmacy staff were not getting the protection they need to prevent the contraction of COVID-19. We’ve taken a look at the PPE being supplied to pharmacy staff, the measures taken to protect patients, and the access to testing in the discipline.
Public Health England recently released guidance to pharmacy staff stating that surgical masks or cartridge respirator masks must be used when a distance of 2m cannot be maintained between colleagues or patients. Pharmacists and assistants are now widely considered frontline staff as coronavirus is epidemic in the community, and asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic patients may seek advise from pharmacists. Staff only isolated to the dispensary are not required to utilise facemasks, but the proximity of other staff and patients ensures this applies to a small minority of pharmacies, as most community pharmacies exist in a smaller building. Protective screens at counters and between staff may be considered to reduce droplet infection, yet this will vary depending on the resources and discretion of the head pharmacist.
Following the supply of bulk PPE equipment to the United Kingdom, Public Health England sent packs of PPE in Mid March and Mid April available to all pharmacies in the UK, comprising of; 50 masks, 200 aprons and 100 pairs of gloves. Furthermore, NHS management have announced a £300 payment to “‘support the installation of such barriers’ - The payment will be made automatically to all contractors and it is expected to be paid by the NHSBSA in the payment which will be made on 1st May 2020’”. Coming after a spate of criticisms from governing bodies and healthcare staff, these grants will be a welcome reassurance of frontline safety to those working selflessly every day. But what about pharmacy staff testing?
There are concerns community pharmacists have only just been considered fully as individuals who are perhaps more covertly involved in frontline service – as nurses and doctors have been prioritised for COVID-19 testing. In April, the CQC reported around a mere 500 pharmacy staff were referred for testing, far below what was expected of NHS staff. It is thought this route was only for those who could not access testing through other means and does not even adequately represent the number of tests actually carried out. Pharmaceutical Journal reports that one chief pharmacy officer did not receive a testing portal for their staff until as late as 28th April, more than a month after enforcement of compulsory lockdown. Community pharmacy staff can now reportedly access testing through the Department of Health system for essential workers. However, tests are only being carried out for those who are symptomatic and self-isolating, or who have symptomatic family members.
There was outrage in late April that pharmacy staff would not be automatically included in the government testing regimen for essential workers. Amongst the growing data that individuals can in fact be asymptomatic with COVID-19, it seems prudent to arrange regular testing of frontline staff, as hopes for an accurate antibody test mounts. With many questions surrounding the numbers of tests and spread of tests being carried out in the United Kingdom, it seems there are still failings in the test provision to those interacting with the public on a daily basis. With recent relaxing of some lockdown rules, it remains to be seen the impact on new infection numbers, as the majority of the population continue to comply with social distancing rules.