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Pharmacy professionals answer the call to help

June 16, 2021

Assisting in the vaccination effort right from Phase 1.

As countries focused on keeping people safe in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the race to develop a vaccine began. By mid-summer of 2020, Moderna and Pfizer had established themselves as the leaders in developing a COVID-19 vaccine. Health Canada authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use on December 9, 2020, and Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine was authorized for emergency use on December 23.

While the world was focused on the progress of these vaccines, plans were already in the works in Alberta on the logistics of rolling out the Province's COVID-19 immunization program.

Phase 1 began the first week of January 2021. The vaccine was initially made available to seniors born in 1946 or earlier; healthcare workers; long-term and home-care workers; and First Nations, Inuit, and Métis persons born in 1956 or earlier.

Alberta knew approximately when the vaccines would arrive in the province, and who would receive it first, but who would administer the vaccines had to be arranged.

Chad Zelensky is a pharmacist and Senior Advisor – Health Education & Regulatory Bodies with Alberta Health Services (AHS).

Chad recalls that early in the pandemic, AHS was identifying who could be a partner in the COVID-19 response.

"I think in a holistic sense, the organization took a step back and did an environmental scan, identifying who could assist with COVID in general," said Chad.

He helped AHS coordinate with the Alberta College of Pharmacy (ACP).

"Those lines of communication were already in place from earlier in the pandemic; the next step was to talk about vaccinations and who could do that," said Chad.

ACP has requirements for obtaining authorization to administer drugs by injections and AHS has their own set of requirements. Chad said these differing requirements had to be reconciled, and they also had to consider who needed to renew their CPR or First Aid training.

In mid December 2020, on behalf of AHS, ACP sent an email to Alberta pharmacists inviting them to apply to volunteer to help with Phase 1 of the vaccination rollout.

Faun Lusty is a pharmacist with Calgary Foothills Primary Care Network. When she found out that AHS was looking for pharmacists, she was compelled to apply.

"I felt powerless in this ongoing pandemic. This was something that I could directly do to help," explained Faun. "I really wanted to be able to assist in vaccinating as many Albertans as quickly as possible, while giving them a great experience."

Faun had worked for AHS previously, but this time she had to apply as a new employee.

"I was asked if I had an injections certification, how often I would work, and where I would work," said Faun. "It took until late February to complete all the education, training, police check, and paperwork to get to work."

And once the work started, it was busy.

"There were shifts at the Calgary Telus Convention Centre that were non-stop, and we vaccinated 6,000 people in one day," remembers Faun. "I had one evening shift that was four hours; I vaccinated only seven patients the whole time. It was really unpredictable. The sites were also very different in terms of how work was done, and things changed day to day in terms of procedures."

In total, 225 community pharmacists worked at the AHS immunization sites, 125 in Edmonton and 110 in Calgary.

"AHS was very pleased with the level of interest within the membership for sure," said Chad.

Pharmacy technicians are also playing a significant role with AHS's COVID-19 vaccination clinics.

Nicole Johnston is a pharmacy technician working as a Technical Practice Leader with AHS Provincial Pharmacy Services. Nicole has been heavily involved in COVID-19 vaccine-related work with AHS. Some of her responsibilities include creating compounding worksheets for each brand of vaccine to document advanced preparation and checks, conducting virtual meetings for pharmacy staff to improve understanding of processes, fielding questions from nursing teams and public health staff about worksheets and processes, and preparing prefilled syringes of COVID vaccine.

Nicole feels that the scope of practice for pharmacy technicians helped prepare her for working at the vaccine clinics.

"My experience in sterile compounding and familiarity with regulatory standards have been extremely valuable in determining reasonable parameters for high-volume batched preparation occurring in a non-sterile environment," explained Nicole. "Having pharmacy staff contribute to vaccination efforts through the implementation of preparation stations in a clinic setting is unprecedented territory, so we've had to be flexible in our approach."

One of Nicole's tasks has been to observe the workflow at clinics in the Edmonton area to identify areas of improvement and suggest changes.

"Although this work is constantly evolving, it is incredibly rewarding," said Nicole. "Much of my work takes place behind the scenes, yet many pharmacy technicians have expressed gratitude for the level of support I am able to provide."

If pharmacists and pharmacy technicians had not been available, their absence would have had an impact on the vaccination effort.

"There would have been a lot fewer people available to provide vaccinations," said Chad. "So yes, it would have really diminished the pool of healthcare professionals helping."

Nicole values the experiences she is having in the vaccination clinics.

"This work provides an opportunity to show leadership, mentorship, and to nurture our profession," explained Nicole. "I encourage everyone who has the opportunity to work in vaccine clinics to do so, as it is an extremely unique experience for pharmacy technicians!"

Faun found the juggling of roles and daily procedures to be stressful, but worth it.

"I am really glad, though, that our profession was sought out to help with this part of the COVID response," said Faun. "I took a lot of pride and care in telling my patients that my name was Faun, and I am a pharmacist."

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