The retail pharmacy COVID-19 vaccine rollout has incited national public frustration. According to internet wisdom, the secret to getting an appointment is being “persistent” and “clicking incessantly.” When that doesn’t work, complaints of crashing appointment sites, ghost appointments, and calendars with no availability swarm social media feeds and flood pharmacy phones.
But when you call a pharmacy, there’s a person on the other end of that line, fielding the complaints, desperate appointment attempts, and click storms. Slate talked to three pharmaceutical workers around the country to learn how they are handling the pressure.
Sarah, who works at an independent pharmacy in Fort Worth, Texas, has been a technician for 17 years. “Working in the pharmacy setting is not for the weak,” she says. “This is the epitome of a thankless job.” And it’s only become worse in the pandemic.
The phones ring all the time. On the subreddit TalesFromThePharmacy, users talk about how no one listens to the recorded message saying pharmacy staff can’t make appointments and will continue to call repeatedly. “Most curse us out,” one person wrote. “They’re trained to think if you whine a lot, we’ll make an exception,” another user posted.
One pharmacist Slate talked to, who preferred to remain anonymous, works at a Walgreens outside Baltimore. He said that one guy called him six times over the course of a day, thinking that he would get a different person and a different answer. “I can’t blame people for calling, but it just makes everything go so much slower,” this pharmacist said.
The issues with pharmacy booking websites have made life just as frustrating for the technicians administering the shots as those waiting for them. The Baltimore Walgreens pharmacist Slate spoke to was fuming: Elderly people call him up begging for an appointment, and all he can do is tell them to call the helpline. The helpline, though, tells the patients to phone him.
“I feel bad saying we can’t do anything,” a pharmaceutical worker at a New York City Walgreens, who didn’t want to be named, told Slate. But eventually all stories start sounding the same. He said, “I feel bad saying no, but we get so many phone calls that when I hang up one call, I have another call waiting. It doesn’t stop. So, at this point, it’s just whatever.”
Sarah echoed this, saying that at first it was hard to say no, but now—after turning so many people down—she is numb. “We are people, too. We see those hurting in various ways because of the pandemic and we want to help everyone, but to be blunt, you got to wait your turn.” Sarah said she gets constant calls of people trying to convince her that they’re qualified when they aren’t. “We’ve heard everything from people saying they qualify because they are smokers to people who are in great shape claiming to be overweight,” she said. “We want to make sure everyone gets the vaccine, but we do need just a little bit of patience and understanding of the rules and qualifications.” People who book appointments before they are allowed to create a lot of unnecessary work for pharmacists, who are the ones personally sifting through every booked appointment and canceling those made by ineligible candidates.
But the pharmacy workers Slate spoke to said that they do try to help qualified patients whose stories stick with them. The Baltimore Walgreens pharmacist said that he felt horrible turning away two elderly women who had made appointments but were denied their shots because they had been exposed to COVID-19 recently. So he helped them secure appointments 10 days after their exposure date. The New York City Walgreens technician said an elderly woman came in on his first day administering the vaccine with an appointment confirmation, but it didn’t show up in the pharmacy’s system. She was crying. When he had an extra, he called her and gave her the shot. Unless there’s an exceptional case or a qualified patient in need who comes to mind, the pharmacists say they’ll make storewide announcements when they have extra doses. At the end of the day, it’s kind of a free-for-all.
The pharmacists who talked to Slate said that they were administering shots every 15 minutes while also filling prescriptions and answering the phones. The New York City pharmacist said that he was so busy on Monday that he didn’t have time to fill a prescription that came in at 11 a.m. until 8:30 at night.
“You go home exhausted most days, and not all of us get breaks throughout the day,” Sarah said. “We aren’t just giving out shots. We are also running a pharmacy at the same time with the same number of staff.” Yet the New York Walgreens worker said that adding more staff won’t solve the problem. Each staff member needs to be trained, and training takes time—a month at the very least. Finding the time to do that seems impossible. “Seriously what are all of us going to do?” one Reddit user wrote, echoing these worries. “To think of us doing dozens, if not hundred plus COVID vaccines every day for the next year, even two years sounds like a nightmare to me and fills me with dread.”
The pharmacists Slate spoke with feel that the only solution may be one without them in it. “There really should have been a government website to handle all the scheduling instead of depending on us to put something together as an independent pharmacy,” Sarah said. Even the pharmacists at big chains, like Walgreens, felt that they shouldn’t be the backbone of the nation’s vaccine effort. They said that megasites like Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium—where more than 7,000 vaccines have been delivered in a day—are the future of the vaccine effort.
Right now, though, pharmacies remain the hub of vaccine distribution. Just recently, rollout efforts expanded beyond the chains to fill more local pharmacies. But already community pharmacies have complaints: They don’t have enough doses.