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Don’t be surprised to find pharmacy hours cut as drugstores struggle with COVID vaccine demand, staff shortages

Some have temporarily closed because they’ve been hit with so many people seeking shots even as they struggle to maintain staffing.

A sign posted outside a CVS pharmacy in Indianapolis warns customers of early closings. A rush of COVID-19 vaccine-seeking customers and staff shortages are squeezing drugstores around the country.
A sign posted outside a CVS pharmacy in Indianapolis warns customers of early closings. A rush of COVID-19 vaccine-seeking customers and staff shortages are squeezing drugstores around the country.
Tom Murphy / AP

Drugstores are normally busy this time of year with flu shots and other vaccines. But now, with pharmacists also doling out a growing number of COVID-19 shots and administering coronavirus tests, they’re facing increased demand even as they struggle with a shortage of staff.

That’s led to frazzled workers and temporary pharmacy closings in some places around the country.

The push for shots is expected to become even more intense as President Joe Biden urges vaccinated Americans to get booster shots to combat the emerging omicron variant.

According to the White House, more than two in three coronavirus vaccinations are being given at pharmacies.

And pharmacists worry another job might soon be added to their to-do list. If federal regulators approve antiviral pills from drugmakers Merck and Pfizer to treat COVID, pharmacists might soon be able to diagnose infections and then prescribe pills to customers.

“There’s crazy increased demand on pharmacies right now,” said Theresa Tolle, an independent pharmacist who has seen COVID vaccine demand quadruple since the summer at her Sebastian, Florida, store.

People wearing masks shop and wait in line at a Walgreens in Wheeling. A rush of COVID-19 vaccine-seeking customers and staff shortages are squeezing drugstores around the country.
People wearing masks shop and wait in line at a Walgreens in Wheeling.
Nam Y. Huh / AP

Pharmacists say demand for the shots started picking up over the summer as the Delta variant spread rapidly. Booster shots and the expansion of vaccine eligibility to include children have further stoked it.

On top of that workload and routine prescriptions, many drugstores have been asking pharmacists to counsel patients more generally on their health or about chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Pharmacies also have been handling more calls from customers with questions about vaccines or COVID tests, according to Justin Wilson, who owns three independent pharmacies in Oklahoma.

“We’re all working a lot harder than we did before, but we’re doing everything we can to take care of people,” Wilson said.

Tolle said she was lucky to hire a pharmacy resident just before the Delta surge came. The new employee was supposed to focus mostly on diabetes programs but has largely been relegated to vaccine duty.

Tolle said her Bay Street Pharmacy is now giving about 80 COVID shots a day — up from 20 before the Delta wave.

“God’s timing worked out well for me,” she said. “We would not have gotten through without having that additional person here.”

Others haven’t been as fortunate. A CVS Health store in ndianapolis closed its pharmacy in the middle of the afternoon on a recent day due to staffing problems. A sign taped to a metal gate over the closed counter also told customers the pharmacy will soon start closing for a half hour each afternoon so the pharmacist can have a lunch break.

Such temporary closings have ebbed and flowed in pockets around the country throughout the pandemic, but they have grown more acute in recent months, said Anne Burns, a vice president of the American Pharmacists Association.

Pharmacies need minimum staffing to operate safely, and they sometimes have to close temporarily if they fall below those levels.

Burns said many pharmacies already had relatively sparse staffing heading into the pandemic, and a wave of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians left after the virus hit.

“There is a lot of stress and burnout for individuals who have been going at this since March of 2020,” she said.

CVS Health spokesman T.J. Crawford said the company continues “to manage through a workforce shortage that isn’t unique to CVS Health.”

Walgreens also has adjusted pharmacy hours “in a limited number of stores,” spokesman Fraser Engerman said.

Both companies are hiring. CVS Health says it has hired 23,000 employees in a push it started in September. About half of them are pharmacy technicians, who can deliver vaccines.

As companies scramble to hire and keep workers, Burns and Tolle worry about adding more responsibilities, like diagnosing and treating COVID.

Tolle said it isn’t clear yet how pharmacists will be reimbursed for the time they take to diagnose and prescribe..

“We want to be able to help our communities,” she said. “I don’t know how pharmacies are going to manage it.”

Sherri Brown, a city employee in Omaha, Nebraska, was searching for a vaccine booster dose, but two nearby pharmacies didn’t have appointments available, and a third didn’t have the brand she wanted. She wound up getting a shot at a county-run clinic.

“I just wanted to protect myself,” said Brown, who said she suffered through two weeks of coughing, headaches and fatigue when she caught the virus in January,before she was vaccinated. “I guess I’m encouraged to see that people are taking this more seriously.”

Pharmacist Todd Gharibian gives a coronavirus vaccination to Toshiko Sugiyama at a CVS Pharmacy in Los Angeles.
Pharmacist Todd Gharibian gives a coronavirus vaccination to Toshiko Sugiyama at a CVS Pharmacy in Los Angeles.
Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP