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Phoenix pharmacies facing worker, drug shortages

Experts: Patients should plan ahead

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Your local pharmacy might be seeing longer lines, longer wait times and drug shortages as pharmacy workers contend with a nationwide shortage.

In addition to performing typical duties, such as refilling prescriptions or handing out flu shots, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians have added COVID-19 testing and vaccinations to their ever- growing list of tasks. Combined with burnout from a two-year pandemic, a staffing shortage has taken hold of the industry.

According to a May 2021 study from the National Community Pharmacists Association, almost 90% of survey respondents said they can’t find a pharmacy technician and nearly 60% can’t find front-end employees to run the cash register or track inventory. About 25% had difficulty hiring delivery drivers, crucial at the height of stay-at- home orders, and more than 13% couldn’t hire enough staff pharmacists to handle prescriptions and patients.

The Arizona Department of Health Services said it does not track the number of pharmacists or pharmacy technicians across the state, though pharmacies in Arizona are hiring in droves to combat the issue.

Monica Prinzing, a spokesperson for CVS Health, said the company has hired thousands amid the pandemic and will continue to do so as the public health crisis remains ongoing.

“Our teams remain flexible in meeting customers’ needs in a dynamic environment that is part of a nationwide workforce shortage affecting nearly every industry and company,” she said. “Early in the pandemic we hired 10,000 pharmacy technicians to support these efforts. Through our recent virtual career event, we hired 23,000 new retail employees, including pharmacists, nurses and pharmacy technicians, and are in the process of onboarding another 20,000 candidates.”

Prinzing also noted COVID-19 vaccine clinics operate with separate teams from the pharmacy, so people who administer vaccines are doing so exclusively. That allows pharmacists and pharmacy techs to focus on filling prescriptions and counseling patients on their medical needs.

Walgreens did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the issue, and neither did Banner Health or the Mayo Clinic.

Drug shortages are also a concern for the industry because of supply chain issues and labor shortages as people fall ill with the virus. The Food and Drug Administration, which tracks drug shortages, counts 162 items on its “currently in shortage” list.

The administration’s report on 2020 drug shortages said it worked with manufacturers to successfully prevent 199 drug shortages for that year. Though the FDA also noted shortages are declining: the number of new drug shortages per calendar year has declined from a high of 250 in 2011 to just 43 in 2020.

Kam Gandhi, executive director of the Arizona State Board of Pharmacy, said drug shortages are nothing new.

“That list is always there,” he said, referring to the FDA’s running count. “So there’s always a shortage of something. We haven’t heard [of] an alarming amount of shortage of products.”

Gandhi said there are processes in place, such as compounding pharmacies, which can customize medications based on a patient’s specific needs, to ensure patients get the care they need. There are also safety measures in place so everyone receives the correct drugs.

But he acknowledged the industry is suffering from a shortage of workers at the moment, including in Arizona. While the state board does not track labor shortages, Gandhi said just 22 people applied for licensing in the last month, which is not nearly enough to fill the significant gaps.

“It’s a pandemic just like the virus,” he said. “We don’t know the gravity of it just yet.”

Gandhi said much of the burden comes from adding vaccination to pharmacy duties, pent-up demand from patients concerned about medication shortages, and coming down with the virus themselves, which presents bigger problems.

“When somebody tests positive at a store, that compromises the entire operation,” he said. “They have to do a deep cleaning and that may put some folks out of operation for about 10 to 14 days because they were in contact with someone that has COVID or something of that nature. There’s a multitude of situations that have taken place that’s causing this issue.”

Gandhi said the board is doing its best to license people quicker and get more people out working in the community, but the process takes time to properly vet applicants.

“We don’t want to create another problem by solving this problem,” he said.

Gandhi said patients can do quite a bit to help the issue. Patience is key, and so is planning ahead when it comes to prescriptions.

“Instead of running out of medication and waiting until the night before or a couple of days before they run out, call a week, a weekand- a-half before running out so that the pharmacy has enough time to fill it. And if they fall victim to it, then there could be other opportunities to transfer that medication to another pharmacy. Just give themselves enough time to make sure they don’t miss out on their treatment and have any gaps.”

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