Pharmacists are calling on the government to provide better support to their staff as the fight against COVID-19 ramps up.
Pharmacy workers are on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis, but many say they have been left without adequate protective equipment as Australians rush to stock up on medicines.
While the nation moves towards stricter COVID-19 restrictions, pharmacists have been deemed an essential service and will continue operating.
But some believe they’ve been forgotten in the government’s plan to support health care workers throughout the pandemic.
“We are on the frontline, we are helping everyone and the government doesn’t recognise us as healthcare professionals, they only recognise us as a business,” Sydney pharmacist Mohamed Kaoud told SBS News.
Mr Kaoud, who works at a pharmacy at Lidcombe in the city's west, co-authored a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday requesting "adequate protection".
He said pharmacy staff needed full body and face protective gear or businesses should be required to install protective plastic shields.
A Department of Health spokesperson told SBS News that community pharmacies are receiving allocations of personal protective equipment, such as face masks, from the national stockpile.
Pharmacists are able to apply to their local primary health network for "modest supplies of surgical masks", the spokesperson said, for staff and patients who display symptoms of COVID-19.
"This is an important health protection measure as there is a strong public interest in community pharmacies remaining open to maintain the supply of medicines for the whole community," they said.
But Mr Kaoud, who has more than 20 years experience in the industry, said the government’s support for both he and his colleagues has so far been about “keeping pharmacies open, not about keeping pharmacists alive".
He described often having to examine customers in a close “one-to-one” setting, similar to nurses and doctors.
“We are going to be the last people here. People can stock up on food, on groceries, but no one can stock up on medications. So we’ll be here all the time for the people, no matter what happens,” he said.
Last week pharmacies and supermarkets in NSW were given the green light to trade 24 hours a day, seven days a week for as long as they are needed to.
The NSW Government’s COVID-19 plan advises pharmacy workers that it is not necessary to wear face masks as a precautionary measure, but encourages increased cleaning of frequently touched areas.
Personal protective gear, including gowns, eyewear or gloves, are also only required when treating a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, according to the Department of Health.
Despite the policy, Chris Freeman, president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, said pharmacists were concerned about the lack of access to masks.
“They’re concerned for their community but they are also concerned for their own health and the health of their staff and that’s particularly because it’s been a challenge at this point in time to get protective equipment for pharmacists delivering these critical services,” he said.
Meanwhile, pharmacy owners have been encouraged to reach out to their community to ensure they are doing everything possible to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
The current advice includes urging people who are unwell to stay home and phone the pharmacy instead of coming in, encouraging good hygiene practices and setting up the store in a way that allows for 1.5 metre spacing between customers.
Earlier this month, the government launched the Home Medicines Service which would allow medications to be home delivered to people isolating due to coronavirus or vulnerable groups, including people over 70, Indigenous Australians over 50, parents of new babies, pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions or who are immunocompromised.
The service will be available for six months, with customers able to access it once every four weeks.
Dr Freeman said the service “mirrored” the government’s new Telehealth scheme, which allows all Australians to access a virtual consultation with their doctor.
This will mean a person is able to consult with their GP, have the prescription sent to the pharmacy and then have it delivered all without leaving the house, eliminating the potential for the virus to spread.
For pharmacy owners, however, challenges remain over how to best deliver the service.
“The remuneration for the delivery is not a great amount of money, and so there are challenges with the cost of providing that service,” Dr Freeman said.
“And the service is only available to patients once a month and, of course, many patients require medicines more frequently than that and pharmacies are having to come up with ways to ensure that those medicines are still delivered to those patients.”
In a statement on Tuesday, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government was "fast-tracking the rollout of electronic prescribing and dispensing through medical and dispensing software".
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.
If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.
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