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Demand at pharmacies ramps up as COVID-19 vaccine booster shots approved

With the expansion of groups eligible for COVID booster shots, it's continuing to ramp up demand for both locally-owned and retail chain pharmacies.

AURORA, Colo. — As booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine gets approved for more groups of people, demand for the shot is climbing back up at pharmacies – and today, an FDA panel gave its initial green light Tuesday recommending Pfizer's vaccine to children ages 5 to 11. 

The expansion to groups eligible for booster shots and additional efforts to get people their first doses of the vaccine has increased demand from both locally-owned and retail chain pharmacies administering boosters. 

"We had seen a little bit of kind of that lull where people who had wanted the vaccine was starting to even off, or even decrease," said Emily Zadvorny, the executive director of the Colorado Pharmacists Society and clinical associate professor for the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy.

"But you know, now that we have the boosters for not only immunocompromised people, but pretty much for a lot of the population that we saw in our high-risk populations and older populations be able to get the boosters, that's bringing all that same rush back into the pharmacies," she said. 

Credit: Taylor Schuss
Mary Desta, a pharmacist and owner of Apex Pharmacy in Aurora, helps a person at the store.

Demand outpacing staffing levels

Zadvorny added that they've heard from community pharmacies to retail chain pharmacies, that on top of the boom in people wanting the COVID-19 vaccine, regular day-to-day medication needs are having to be met as well, adding to the pressure. 

"So, it's been crazy," she said. "And then you compound that with the flu vaccines, and this is really the prime time for people to be also getting flu vaccines. That's just, you know, increasing that even more."

And just like in any industry right now, labor shortages have impacted health care, including pharmacies. 

"Healthcare is having the same types of issues and that may be physicians, nurses and certainly in the pharmacies. We are experiencing what I would say is a pretty high level of workplace stress and and some burnout levels that we haven't seen in the past," Zadvorny said. "You know, we want to do what's right by the patient and take care of every patient we can. But it is working longer hours, doing more with less work force."

There is a shortage in pharmacy technicians who are the healthcare professionals that help pharmacists take care of patients – Zadvorny added that there's also a decent shortage of pharmacists. 

"But a lot of that reason is, you know, we are trying to increase our workforce to help take care of all these vaccinations and help expand what we can do. There just aren't enough people to hire. The demand is exceeding the supply with pharmacy professionals right now," Zadvorny said.

A national survey last summer from the National Community Pharmacists Association, whose data was out of 278 pharmacies – showed that 80% of them said they were having a difficult time filling open positions.  

"I think in this time we all appreciate a little grace and patience from everyone around us. And I think that's true when it comes to pharmacies as well," Zadvorny said. "They're probably going to move to more appointment based, you know, being so that they can kind of work out that workload a little bit better."

Recently, there has been mixed messaging in who qualifies for certain booster shots between the state and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) – Zadvorny said pharmacies will follow the guidance of the CDC. 

"I would assume eventually, there'll be enough time and resources to get everyone a booster if that's appropriate and recommended. But hopefully, you know, we're still targeting those high-risk populations first with what has come out from the federal authorities," Zadvorny said. 

Credit: Taylor Schuss
A perscription is sorted at Apex Pharmacy in Aurora.

Gearing up 

Apex Pharmacy has been in the Aurora community for close to a year now, and pharmacist and owner Mary Desta said the community has been supportive. 

"So there’s been a lot of demand for that and generally a lot of demand for boosters – we’ve just been doing booster vaccines all day since Saturday," Desta said Tuesday. 

Overall she said demand is not quite where it was when the vaccines first were approved, but that the demand is climbing back up again, and that they're meeting that demand on a walk-in basis. 

“And still people are kind of wanting to know ‘Can we make an appointment?’ ‘Can we come at this time?’ so it’s been a lot of phone calls throughout the day," she said. "We definitely are gearing up to doing more boosters and getting ready so we can take care of our customers."

As for staffing shortages, she said she's looking to hire at least one pharmacist technician for now, but expects that number to grow in the future, as the number of patients coming in continues to grow.

Luckily, since she's locally owned and not a chain, she explained that it's easier for her to bring in additional pharmacists if a technician is out. 

As of now, she said they haven't really had to turn away customers, and tries to take in everyone right away. As for the growing demand, she said her team will be ready. 

“I’m used to that fast paced work flow so, we’re ready for it! We’re ready for it – whatever comes our way," Desta said. 

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