On Monday, January 25th 2021, my life changed in an instant. As a community pharmacist, and co-owner of The Prescription Shoppe, I was excited to have the opportunity to serve and be on the frontlines of the coronavirus vaccine distribution. My husband and I, along with our staff had been discussing the best way to rollout our COVID-19 vaccines. After months of nearly harassing the Peninsula Health Department to ensure that we would be among the first pharmacies to receive the vaccine in Williamsburg, and strategically planning how we would form our patient distribution list, the day had finally arrived. With the demand for the vaccine being so great and the supply being so small, we didn’t know what to expect and if things would go smoothly, but we were ready to give it our best shot; literally!
Our team sent out a mass text message to all of our patients who receive text message alerts from us explaining the process. We also put out several posts on our social media platforms, and updated our website with directions as well. We even reached out to local newspapers so that we could get the information to folks who may not be as tech savvy. We felt confident that we had gone above and beyond to get the word out. Ultimately, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to vaccinate the entire population of Williamsburg, but that we still could make a difference in our community.
We decided that it would be too cumbersome for us to keep a physical list, so we opted to set up a cell phone dedicated specifically to our “COVID-19 Vaccine Hotline.” The directions where simple, text your name(s) and birthdate(s) to 757-870-3303. People were instructed to begin sending in their information at 8:30 am on Monday, January 25th. We encouraged patients to send one text per household to minimize duplications. This would help us schedule appointment times more efficiently for their convenience. We instructed patients to visit our website (www.tpsva.com) and to print out the patient questionnaire and other pertinent forms, so that they would be prepared when we called to schedule their appointments.
As soon as we opened our doors for business at 8:30 am on January 25th, we were inundated with over 2,000 text messages; in addition to more than a dozen people lined up at our front door with their forms in hand. As the rest of the day unfolded, our team of six: 2 pharmacists, 2 pharmacy technicians, and 2 Hampton University School of Pharmacy students, proceeded to vaccinate 111 patients by close of business. We scheduled 4 patients per 15 minutes, and rotated them out to our waiting area for the 15 minute observation period (only a few patients had to wait around for 30 minutes after indicating that they had experienced some sort of allergic reaction in the past). We felt a sense of accomplishment, exhaustion and excitement all at once; feelings that would only multiply in the weeks to come.
The immediate and continued response from the majority of the folks within our community has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. On top of our usual work load and all of the vaccines, we have had an exponential increase in phone calls and people stopping by the store to inquire “where am I exactly on your list?” Some people have even become belligerent with us, yelling at our staff and insisting that their condition is “worse than their neighbor” who has already been called for an appointment. We understand the anxiety and frustration because we are talking about a life and death situation. We have seen several of our patients’ battle this virus, and have regretfully lost a few to the pandemic.
We ask for patience as we continue to make progress. In order to do this, we need time. If you have not been scheduled for an appointment yet, please wait to hear from us, instead of constantly “checking in.” Get on as many vaccination lists as possible to increase your chances, and go with whomever you hear from first.
Most understand that this will be a process. Most people realize that they are not the only one with an underlying issue or a pressing matter. The majority appreciates our hard work and effort, even if they haven’t received their own vaccine yet. For every customer who comes into our store with an entitled attitude and negative remarks, there are five more waiting to lift us up. At times, it is hard not to take some of the criticism to heart when we have sacrificed so much to give people this life saving vaccine. My mother and neighbors have stepped in to help with our boys. They are also sacrificing their time and energy to ensure that Henry and I can both be at The Prescription Shoppe giving vaccines all day.
For the many people who have been gracious, supportive and above all, patient, we say thank you. Thank you for understanding that you and your family are not the only ones who “really need the vaccine.” Thank you for trusting us to follow the guidance that has been put forth by the health department. We appreciate your kind words, cards, and warm smiles. Thank you for understanding that we are not in a position to triage and decide that your triple bypass surgery is more or less important than another patient who just finished chemotherapy. We have received over 6,000 text messages and several hundred voicemails at this point. There is no way for us to go through and open each message and then determine who we should schedule for an appointment first. If you are 65 or older, you qualify for phase 1b and we will automatically reach out to you. We do not bypass people who are eligible because they are not “old enough.” Obviously, we want to take care of our elderly population, but we will not be passing up anyone who should be vaccinated per the Virginia Health Department. We have been vaccinating some of our patients who are between the ages of 16 and 64 who qualify for phase 1b because of an underlying condition, or because they are a frontline worker who did not get vaccinated during phase 1a. However, the secondary list that we have created for folks that fall in this category is not moving as quickly as the patients who are 65 and older. We have been able to vaccinate some teachers and other healthcare personnel, and our goal is to continue to take care of the people who fall in those categories. But per recommendation from the health department, we have been primarily focusing on our Medicare aged patients.
When people ask if given the opportunity to be a COVID-19 vaccination site, would we do it all again? The answer is simple: yes! This is not about The Prescription Shoppe; it is bigger than all of us. We just crossed over the 500,000 death toll mark as a nation, which has been worse than any other mass casualty in the history of this country. It is imperative that we work together now more than ever. It’s why we are tirelessly trying to vaccinate as many people as we can as quickly as possible; even the ones who thought that the coronavirus was “just a hoax” last year, and the ones that we had to convince to wear a mask when they would come into our store. If we all do our part, continue to take safety precautions and get vaccinated when we have the opportunity, we will be able to finally turn the page on this chapter. Hopefully, once we do, we won’t forget so many of the lessons that we were forced to learn during this time period.