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With the current 'social distancing' requirements, pharmacies -- essential services -- change procedures

PAIGE WALLACE - Brooklyn Pharmacy employee Tate Johnson helps a customer picking up a prescription, while both are following new social-distancing procedures, as part of Oregons COVID-19 coronavirus response. COVID-19 coronavirus precautions have changed the way Southeast Portlanders obtain prescription medications. Gone are the days when customers simply walked up to the pharmacy counter for service – that model is currently replaced by curbside pickup, home delivery, and enforced distance between pharmacists and the public.

These changes came by order of the Oregon Health Authority in mid-March, following Gov. Kate Brown's statewide declaration of a public health emergency. Pharmacies hurried to enact social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

"Number one, we're trying to protect ourselves and our patients," said Pat Hubbell, owner of Brooklyn Pharmacy on S.E. Milwaukie Avenue, a half block south of Powell. His pharmacy remains open for walk-in customers, but neon green signs and X-marks taped to the floor show customers where to stand. One by one, spread throughout the store, people wait on the green placeholders for their turn at the counter – except that the counter itself is cordoned off, so no customers can get within six feet of the register. Pharmacy staff lean over to receive payment with gloved hands, speaking slightly louder than usual to be heard through their face masks.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is now standard operating procedure at local pharmacies, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website said that that "filling and dispensing prescriptions does not require use of PPE." But the recommendations do call for limiting the risks of infection, which has led to significant changes in the way pharmacies do business.

"We're wiping things down multiple times a day," reported Tyler Treharne, owner and manager of New Era Pharmacy, located near the intersection of S.E. McLoughlin and Holgate Boulevard. This effort continues, even though since March 23 he has shortened his business hours and eliminated the need for in-store service. Employees instead come outside to meet any patient who needs to drop off a prescription – although the pharmacy prefers getting those from doctors over the phone as much as possible. Once the prescription is filled, his staff delivers the product to the customer via curbside pickup, or sends it via one-day shipping.

Treharne says his clientele has been receptive to the adjustments. "It helps them out a lot, and just relieves some burden off their mind to realize, okay, I don't have to go to a crowded grocery store or retail place to fill my medicine." New Era and Brooklyn are both independently-owned pharmacies. They report ongoing brisk business during the pandemic, which they attribute to their individualized customer service, such as knowing their customers by name.

Both of these pharmacies have seen an uptick in the number of people requesting an extra supply of their regular medications. "We're trying to get everyone emergency supplies that they can have on hand, not just for the coronavirus but if an earthquake or some other natural disaster were to take place, they'll have that," Hubbell said, noting that insurance companies may approve additional 30 or 90 day supplies in these circumstances. Treharne said many of his customers have asked for a double supply of their medications, even paying out-of-pocket if insurance doesn't cover it. He thinks some people want to be prepared for future emergencies, while others simply hope to minimize their trips outside the home at a time when the risk of contracting the coronavirus remains high.

These two pharmacies aren't the only ones changing their business practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Southeast Portland's larger pharmacies have made adjustments, too. Many pharmacy chains have temporarily waived shipping fees for most prescription medications. These include Safeway, Walgreens, CVS, and Target.

At the new small Target store on S.E. Powell Boulevard, pharmacy customers are greeted by social distancing markers on the floor, indicating where to stand while waiting for service. Pharmacy employees wear masks and gloves. A large bottle of hand sanitizer sits on the counter beneath the pickup window, ready for the public and staff to use.

Sellwood's new CVS store on S.E. 17th Avenue at Tacoma Street placed a rectangular folding table in front of the pharmacy checkout counter, as a guide for customers to maintain their distance. The credit card machine rests at the end, so that the customer handles the entire payment process without ever having to hand over a card.

Signs on the front door of both Target and CVS remind customers that these stores are not CDC testing centers. Patients experiencing COVID-19 symptoms are urged to contact their primary care physician for instructions about whether and where to get tested.

At some pharmacies, services have expanded in new ways due to social distancing guidelines. Walgreens customers are now able to purchase non-pharmacy items using drive-thru windows at certain stores. Staff at the S.E. Holgate and Cesar Chavez Blvd. (formerly 39th) location confirmed that customers may call ahead to request a small quantity of household items such as cleaning products, baby supplies, or over-the-counter medications for drive-thru pickup. All of the requested items must fit through the small window opening, though – and some may be out of stock. On its website, Walgreens requests that customers "practice patience", as stores adapt to these new protocols.

Local pharmacists shared the sentiment that they're looking forward to the day when they can administer a vaccine to help prevent COVID-19. "I have no forecast of when this might be, but if they do come up with a vaccine, we will be ready to start giving vaccinations immediately as soon as we get it," Brooklyn Pharmacy's Hubbell said enthusiastically.

New Era's Treharne summed up a commonality between pharmacists and patients at this time: This pandemic has presented unique new challenges, and the changes haven't been easy for anyone – on either side of the pharmacy counter. "It has taken a big toll on us, and all of our staff, but we're happy to be here. And hopefully, we're helping out as much as we can, just to make the situation a little bit better for all of our patients."


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