Pharmacy workers at retail drugstores throughout the country have been asked to staff one of the front lines in the fight against COVID-19. Now they’re increasingly fearful that operating without proper protection has put them at risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus.
Some staff are so afraid of being exposed that they’re draping shower curtains over their pharmacy counters and begging for sneeze guards at the checkout line.
“CVS’s mission is helping people on their path to better health,” said one Massachusetts CVS store employee, who has been asking for gloves, masks, and plexiglass guards for weeks. “They need to include their employees in that mission.”
Pharmacists and drugstore employees know that the nature of the business means close proximity to the sick — the pharmacy is often the next place you visit after a checkup. Employees say they’re dedicated to playing their essential role in the health care system, but need significantly more support and supplies. CDC guidelines instructing people to stock up on their daily medications as part of social distancing measures has meant a surge of patients have been filling prescriptions for the weeks ahead. But the lack of widespread COVID-19 testing means that customers who might have symptoms or are still asymptomatic may be putting store employees — and other customers — at risk.
“Nobody at CVS, Walgreens, or Rite-Aid will speak out for themselves,” said Stephen Meyer, an independent pharmacist who launched a Facebook group to help pharmacy workers navigate the crisis. “Many of these large retail chains are starting to become a hub for sickness instead of a hub for wellness.”
As the crisis has spread, drugstore workers have been celebrated by their employers as unsung heroes in the pandemic. Woonsocket, R.I.,-based CVS Health has been among the companies heralding its team members. Last month, the company began hosting onsite testing in its parking lots, and announced it would hire an additional 50,000 employees, including 2,500 in New England. In a video posted to the company’s social media pages, CEO Larry Merlo discussed the company’s “robust business continuity plan” and said it is taking “all necessary precautions at our work sites and stores” to ensure its 300,000-person workforce stays safe and healthy.
CVS store employees say that despite these outward measures, they still feel under siege. The company has been sending out daily health guidelines to staff, but had to issue a correction last week after its chief medical officer recommended discredited information about methods of fending off the virus. A store in Wayland had to close temporarily after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. And a petition with over 10,000 signatures has been circulating asking Merlo to provide workers with protective gloves and masks, and to encourage drive-through pharmacy options instead of keeping store floors open to the public.
The company has made promises that such in-store protective measures will soon be in place, but some employees fear it will be too little, too late.
“One of my colleagues had a couple of individuals in their store that had tested positive for COVID-19,” said the local CVS worker, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “They did not have their masks on and they took it upon themselves to stay in the store and talk to people and shop around for 15 to 20 minutes while they were waiting for their prescription.”
The worker, whose store is in a major tourist destination, said second-homeowners from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have been streaming in to get prescriptions refilled. She said CVS delivered an initial shipment of masks and gloves, but it’s not enough, and she fears the plexiglass shields at the pharmacy and checkout counters may not be enough coverage at most stores. She believes that the company should close its store floors and focus on its drive-through pharmacy and prescription business.
“I feel like CVS should be doing the right thing and closing stores and paying employees," she said. "Instead, stores are so busy that we’re hiring more people, that we’re putting more people at risk.”
The company has acknowledged the complaints about safety from its workers.
“Our employees have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to providing essential goods and services at a time when they’re needed most,” CVS spokesperson Joe Goode said in an e-mail responding to the concerns. He said the company has been offering bonuses to employees, is now offering child and elder care to its workers, has sent masks and gloves, and will soon begin installing protective barriers in all of its stores. CVS, he said, is "working around the clock to increase availability of supplies and update protocols to ensure our stores are safe for employees and customers alike.”
Dr. Katelyn O’Brien, president of the Massachusetts Pharmacists Association, said the organization has been pushing to have pharmacists recognized as health care workers in Massachusetts so they can be given the access to the same protective equipment as hospital workers.
“Our role in preventative care for patients with chronic conditions is more critical now than ever," O’Brien said. "And for us to continue to provide this safely and effectively we need all the support we can get.”
She said she has fielded concerns from members since the outbreak started, and shared an anonymous e-mail from a retail pharmacist who feared speaking out publicly.
“We are filling more prescriptions than ever before, taking more phone calls than ever before, and are more short staffed than ever,” the pharmacist wrote, complaining about the lack of protective equipment, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies. "My colleagues and I are fully exposed to this virus. We are overworked, understaffed, and ill equipped. ... If pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and other support staff start getting sick, we will not be able to serve the public with this essential service.”
This week, the association urged lawmakers to take legislative action to better support their members by requiring that all pharmacies implement protective measures that would include gloves, masks, and protective barriers. On Wednesday, the American Pharmacists Association wrote a letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration seeking clearer federal guidelines to ensure the safety of its members.
Concerns have grown so widespread that Stephen Meyer’s Facebook group, Pharmacy Staff for COVID-19 support, has grown to nearly 32,000 members nationally in the last two weeks. Meyer, who co-owns an independent pharmacy in Ohio after spending years working at outlets like CVS, Rite-Aid, and Walgreens, created the page after he realized few of his retail colleagues would be able to take the same protective measures he’s taken at his store.
Meyer is currently quarantining himself in a hotel room away from his 1-month-old daughter after one of his technicians showed signs of having the virus. He said he’s been hearing stories of “floater" pharmacy techs who travel between locations being told to report to work at a new retail store, only to learn that they’re replacing a colleague who has come down with symptoms of COVID-19. Those people don’t know how well the store has been cleaned, or who else might have been exposed and is asymptomatic, he said.
He said that deep-pocketed pharmacy brands should have protections in place to put their employees’ and customers’ minds at ease. Added security measures will be important in the coming weeks, he said, when crime may begin to pick up at stores as people addicted to opioids may start looking for new sources of narcotics if they don’t have a source of income.
“How expensive is a plexiglass barrier?” he asked. “We’re never going to stage a walkout like Amazon did — we’re health care providers — but we need to be provided with the right tools.”
Protections may be coming too late for a pharmacist at a Walgreens in Denver, who said he had been working alongside a colleague who is now hospitalized with a confirmed case of COVID-19. The store manager moved to immediately shut down the store for a deep clean, but was rebuked by a superior and the store stayed open. When the cleaning crew arrived 24 hours later, they were in full outbreak-level personal protective gear, the pharmacist said, while the pharmacy workers, who did not have masks, continued to fill prescriptions out of the drive-through window.
“We don’t have masks, they’re not doing anything to protect us, and in the instances where we are exposed to it, they don’t care,” he said.
He’s been pushing the company to install plexiglass barriers, but they’ve yet to arrive so he plans on going to Home Depot this weekend to build one himself. Meanwhile, he’s still handling paper prescriptions from COVID-19 patients, and dealing with a surge in hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin prescriptions from dubious sources. “I had so many doctors calling in those prescription for themselves and their families,” he said.
Walgreens spokeswoman Molly Sheehan said that the company follows CDC guidelines when it is notified of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a store, and has “instituted extensive safety measures for our employees and in our stores including cleaning regimens and special hours, social distancing protocols, plexiglass shields and hygiene guidance and requirements.” On Friday, the company said it would begin providing face shields to all employees in stores and begin doing temperature screenings at its distribution centers.
But many pharmacy workers remain anxious as they know that the worst is yet to come in the United States and worry that it’s not a matter of if, but when, they’ll be exposed to the virus.
“Don’t throw us to the wolves. Just help protect us,” said a pharmacist who works for a grocery chain in Florida, where the virus is rapidly spreading among the state’s elderly population. She said she’s fearful that the virus will eventually arrive at her pharmacy, and dreads the thought of learning that she or her colleagues might have spread it while they were asymptomatic, possibly handing it off to a patient as they fulfilled a script for their medication.
“They could be thinking it’s safe," she said. "It came straight from the pharmacy.”
This story has been updated to reflect that CVS spokesman Joe Goode said the company has sent workers masks and gloves.