In coronavirus pandemic, unleash pharmacists to be a potent weapon in the fight against COVID-19

We can't let antiquated regulations hamper skilled individuals from contributing their knowledge and talents to the fight against coronavirus

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The world is in the grip of a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes. Hardship and disruption are widespread, but so are the efforts of people whose contributions we may not have fully appreciated before.

Today the U.S. is grateful for the grocery store clerks, truck drivers, and warehouse workers who are keeping our supply chains running. And of course, we thank God for the health care professionals risking their own health to save lives.

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This is how our country always comes together. Through world wars and the Great Depression and the horrible attack on September 11, 2001, Americans rush in to help.

There is no time now to allow antiquated regulations to hamper skilled individuals from contributing their knowledge and talents to the fight against coronavirus. Unfortunately, we’ve already witnessed how bureaucratic barriers delayed deployment of effective, broad-based COVID-19 testing.

Let our state and federal leaders take that experience as a lesson and tear down any other unnecessary obstacles right away. Among their immediate actions should be empowering all pharmacists to practice to the full scope of their license and training.

The National Community Pharmacists Association represents 21,000 pharmacy small business owners and their quarter-million employees. Together they comprise a national health care safety net with substantial reach into rural and underserved areas that will desperately need their medical expertise.

First of all, as soon as point-of-care COVID-19 test kits become available—and production must be accelerated—pharmacists should be authorized to conduct these screenings. This will help conserve precious hospital space by offering patients a convenient local testing option, quick results, and important medical counsel regarding quarantine procedures, at-home recuperation, and when and how to seek emergency care.

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Just as important, pharmacists are able to report the test results to state and national officials to act as an early warning alarm system to help officials take early steps to take proactive action.

Pharmacy-based testing isn’t a new idea. It already exists in 44 states for strep throat, influenza, and other diseases. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, pharmacists have been testing to distinguish such common illnesses from COVID-19 and thereby alleviate pressures on hospitals and other urgent care providers. Most pharmacies are ready, able, and willing to add COVID-19 point of care testing to the services they provide.

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Additionally, states should reconsider any hurriedly applied restrictions on the dispensing of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, whose potential efficacy as COVID-19 treatments is being explored. Concerns regarding stockpiling and hoarding of these drugs are much appreciated, but some policies have gone too far.

In fact, in a recent NCPA survey, 83.8 percent of independent pharmacists say they should be able to fill a prescription for a limited supply of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine, as long as a patient has tested positive for COVID-19 and is under a doctor’s care. And while 90 percent of survey respondents are currently having difficulty obtaining these medicines, Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA should be helping free supply up for prudent, supervised use.

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Since coronavirus arrived on U.S. shores, Americans have come to know Dr. Anthony Fauci as one of the steadiest voices guiding us through this pandemic. To community pharmacists, it came as no surprise that long before he directed the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases or joined the White House Coronavirus Task Force, he began his career delivering prescriptions for his pharmacist father in Brooklyn. That was good training for where he is now. Pharmacists are well trained to partner with other health care workers.

In our current situation that will include adding pharmacists immunizing with a new COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available. Pharmacists already immunize millions of patients a year. With more than 55,000 locations staffed with health professionals, immunizing pharmacists will play a central part in helping bring this crisis to an end.

The only thing community pharmacists ask of state and federal officials throughout it all is to be unleashed to help this nation in crisis. Because now more than ever, pharmacists are here to serve.

B. Douglas Hoey is the CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association, which represents 21,000 locally-owned pharmacies nationwide. 

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