It was around this time last year that a handful of pharmacies started vaccinating against COVID-19. Since then, over 20 million jabs have been delivered at 1,500 pharmacy sites, most of them being independents.
InPharmacy spoke to some NPA members who have been at the forefront of the vaccine effort…
Andrew Hodgson, Andrews Pharmacy, Macclesfield
Andrews Pharmacy have been providing medicines and healthcare advice to the residents of Macclesfield for over 30 years and currently operate three pharmacies across the town.
It was also the first community pharmacy to administer a COVID-19 vaccine, on Thursday 14 January 2021.
One year on, owner and pharmacist Andrew Hodgson says they’ve administered 110,000 vaccines with a team of 30 vaccinators and 150 volunteers in total.
“During the booster campaign we made a new entrance just for the vaccination centre so we have two streams coming into the building now; those coming for vaccines and those for all the other pharmacy services.
“Early on we just had separate teams and lots of marshals to keep people in the right areas and queues. We had huge community support from patients and families coming forward to volunteer. We also had really good support from the local scout groups, who were already part of the pandemic delivery service. Scout leaders are very good organisers and natural leaders. When we needed them redeployed, they helped to support us.”
Andrew says he has always wanted to take on new services available for pharmacy “as services are the key to the future”.
“We have a number of consultations rooms so we could get up and running at scale in a relatively short time. It’s the perfect thing for us to offer as we have great parking locally for up to 60 cars so we knew we could do it. It was great for the nation and the world but it was good for the pharmacy too.
He adds: “Pharmacy quite often does great things for the communities they're in but they don't get the recognition. Doing the COVID vaccines is only an extension of what we’ve always been doing. I think what pharmacy does is special all the time but for once it’s was recognised.”
A challenge for Andrew has been keeping a regular stream of volunteers.
“We relied on paid staff, paid vaccinators, plus volunteer support. It’s keeping that going when lockdown restrictions were eased. Once they can find other things to do, like last summer time when the weather picked up and they can go on holiday, we struggled a little bit more to get the support teams together. There were times where we had vaccinators test positive, so we had a shortage there.
“You also get volunteer fatigue so we've been lucky that we've been approached by new volunteers throughout.”
One of the biggest joys that Andrew has got through providing the COVID vaccines is the team of vaccinators and healthcare professional’s that have come together as a result.
“We still have a team vaccinators who regularly communicate via WhatsApp on all kinds of things. That’s a team that's come together from nowhere so my joy is what we've created over the last 12 months; it’s a very powerful group who have that risen to the challenge and smashed it.”
Olivier Picard from Newdays Pharmacy, Berkshire.
Olivier Picard established the Marlow COVID-19 vaccination clinic, in a block of offices in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. He and his team of staff and volunteers started delivering COVID-19 vaccines from January 22 2021. He was part of the first cohort which committed to doing 1000 vaccinations a week.
“We ended up doing a lot more than that,” says Olivier.
“The reason we wanted to do it was because we were in complete lockdown and we had already been participating in the provision of vaccination for flu and we thought we could do this.
“This would be the way out of the pandemic and now were seeing it’s having great benefits on the health of the local population.”
Olivier said he had to do the COVID-19 vaccinations from a place that was bigger than his pharmacy.
“We didn't base ourselves in the pharmacy, because the pharmacy was too small, so we looked at the community venue. It was never about increasing the business in my pharmacy because none of the people who have been vaccinated have been to my pharmacy. My pharmacy is four miles from where I’m vaccinating. It was really an attempt to try and unlock the lockdown we were in.”
When Olivier started advertising for volunteers, he was overwhelmed with the response.
“We were inundated with people wanting to help, people who shared our vision that this is an important job that we need to do,” says Olivier.
“I had five volunteers to help me just triage the number of people who wanted to volunteer.
“We have recruited around 400 volunteers who were helping with car parking, data entry, stewarding. It’s been everybody from my wife, to people in the local community, charity organisations, first aiders and staff from St Johns Ambulance.
“We've used upward of around 100 vaccinators and these range from doctors, nurses, paramedics and pharmacists.”
They’ve done tens of thousands of vaccinations but it’s not been without its sacrifices.
“I sent my family on holiday without me just because there’s no way I could stop what we were doing in the vaccination centre,” explains Olivier.
“I’ve worked 12-16 hours from the middle of December 2020 until the 3rd of January 2022. That’s how you have to do it, you just have to work hard.”
Olivier says the biggest challenge has been trying to adapt to constant changes by the NHS in its COVID vaccine guidance.
“I'd go to bed one evening knowing the rules and I’d wake up the following morning and the rules had changed so that has been one of the biggest challenges.”
Another challenge was the paperwork involved in getting the vaccination centre ready.
“Getting the right process in places, the right SOPs in place - that was very labour intensive for myself before we opened. We had a space between four or five weeks between the time we were asked to participate and when we first vaccinated the person.”
A scary moment for Olivier was when he witnessed two anaphylaxis reactions on the same day.
“You think there’s no chance that you would have one let alone two in one day. During that time we'd been vaccinating for 3-4 months and I always knew there would be an anaphylactic reaction one day. On that day we had a patient going full anaphylactic and us having to give adrenaline. Then an hour later the first aider got me to attend to a second person having an anaphylactic reaction.”
However Olivier is full of praise for his team, as they all remained composed and quick to respond to the danger.
“No one wants to deal with such a thing but I was pleased to see that no one panicked when the anaphylactic reaction happened; the paramedic, the manager of the centre and myself as the person dealing with the patients. That patient came back the next day to get her car which had been left on the car park and saying how grateful she was on saving her life.”
The biggest reward for Olivier has been the reaction from the local community.
“We opened a Facebook page and we literally had thousands of thank you messages, people baking cakes, people writing reviews saying how grateful they are, how well organised it was.”
One lady has been baking a large cake for the Marlow vaccination team every Tuesday for the last 50 weeks and another lady regularly sends the team fruit and chocolate from a local grocer.
“She does that anonymously but I managed to find out who she was and I remember calling that lady to say thank you. She broke up in tears to say ‘I’m terribly sorry, that's all I can do, I’m too scared to come out as I’m vulnerable but I wanted to say how grateful I was’.”
“We have never seen anything like this, it’s just incredible. When you have this kind of behaviour from people, it makes it all worthwhile.”
Reena Barai from S.G Barai Pharmacy, Surrey.
When Reena Barai had her first COVID vaccine in a mass vaccination centre, she felt she could have offered the vaccine safely in her pharmacy too.
That’s when the pharmacist and owner of S G Barai Pharmacy in Sutton, Surrey applied to take part in the vaccine effort herself. She started in May 2021 and started during the second cohort which required pharmacies to do 400 vaccines a week.
“When I went to get my own vaccine at a mass vaccination site I remember thinking ‘I could do this’ and do it well too.”
S G Barai Pharmacy was shortlisted to be a COVID vaccination site soon after and Reena went to see Olivier Picard’s vaccination site in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, and her local GP practice, for some research.
“It was interesting to see how they did it. I'm a visual learner and I need to see things before I can figure things out.
“My pharmacy is small; it’s got one consultation room with a small waiting area so I had to really think it through. How could I do it safely and carefully and make sure my team are all trained to do too?"
Reena had four pharmacists trained to vaccinate the community and she also trained the rest of her team to help prepare the vaccines. As time went on she took on other pharmacists and technicians who she trained up to become vaccinators too.
The main challenge for Reena has been running the vaccination site alongside her pharmacy.
“You've got your regular patients who have been using you for years, who you still want to make sure you provide that personal service to, but now you've got thousands of new people coming in for vaccines who you need to make sure are safe and get a professional service too.
“I ended up having two teams - a vaccination team and a pharmacy team. We alternate throughout the day so none of us get tired or bored. It means I needed to take on new staff and offer training.”
The changing nature of the vaccination programme also made things difficult at times.
“We started doing a certain age cohort, then a different age cohort, now the boosters. There's lots of complexities that we've had to manage along the way and we've swapped from being a Pfizer site to a Moderna site.”
There are risks to be aware of too as Reena experienced, when one patient reacted to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We had a patient with a anaphylaxis reaction which was a scary moment. Luckily we recognised it and acted really swiftly and saved her life. We were being extra cautious with people who had allergies so we watched her for half an hour, even though the guidance was to watch her for 15 minutes.
“She ended up reacting at 26 minutes. If we hadn't watched her she could have died in her car.”
So far S G Barai Pharmacy has vaccinated 10,000 people, using its single consultation room.
“It’s been an exhausting and exhilarating journey and I know we'll look back in pride that we played our part in all of this,” says Reena.
“So many people are so grateful that they can come somewhere local, somewhere they trust and get the vaccine.”
Martyn Lewis, Director of Lewis Pharmacy, Exmouth, Devon.
Martyn and Jackie Lewis both run Lewis Pharmacy in Exmouth. When the opportunity came to be part of the vaccine effort, they decided that they had the skill mix to maintain pharmacy services and run the vaccination centre.
"We wanted to be part of the solution and we wanted to help get lives back to normal. We definitely wanted be, 'doing our bit',” says Martyn.
Initially the 1000 week vaccination target appeared to be unattainable from Martyn’s point of view but the more they discussed the logistics and requirements from NHS England, they realised it was possible.
"They wanted a minimum a thousand a week clinic which would include 10 hours on Sundays, eight-eight seven days weeks availability. It’s a big ask. But when we talked to them and went through it all, it became clearer that it was something we could possibly do.”
Lewis Pharmacy started administering vaccines from the 28th January 2021. The vaccination centre is part of the pharmacy explains Martyn, which has three consultation rooms and where the vaccines are administered.
“We haven't needed to outsource anything and so we did it all in-house.”
They’ve had a combination of retired GPs, nurses from hospitals and practice nurses, along with an army of admin and reception staff coming into work for us on their days off, explains Martyn.
"We've got good relationships with all the local surgeries, nurses and various healthcare professionals in Exmouth and surrounding areas which helped.”
Martyn says the relentless nature of the vaccine effort has been tough.
"It’s been a year now and we haven't really stopped. There have been quiet periods but those periods have never really enabled us to take much time off. It’s been non-stop. You don't know how many people are coming through the door each day.”
The changing nature of the COVID-19 vaccine guidance has been tricky to keep up with says Martyn.
“Sometimes we'd find out from the news, like BBC or ITV before we hear from the NHS so that was quite tricky sometimes. So we would have people asking for things before they were in place.”
Lewis Pharmacy has so far jabbed up to 35,000 people. There have been some unpleasant moments with anti vaxxers making derogatory comments and placing stickers in the pharmacy, but they were in the minority says Martyn, compared to the large amount of people who praised their efforts.
“These people aren’t going to be all our customers who come in, but when they see us working and do something useful for them, that’s a good thing for us.
“Pharmacy has been in such a negative world for a while now and this has been a really positive thing for the sector. People coming to our door have been happy to queue around the corner, happy to wait outside, happy to come in, happy to receive a service. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience and people have been really grateful.”