Behind the Mask: Our Pharmacy Team’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Left to right: Rifah Quadiri, Clinical Pharmacist 2C; Emma Koivu, Clinical Pharmacist 3A; and Angela Heintzman, Clinical Pharmacist, Emergency Department.

Pharmacists like Charlene Wilson have known for years that antibiotic resistance poses a serious threat to global health and our ability to treat infectious diseases.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson worked with the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program (ASP), an interdisciplinary team of Clinical Pharmacists, Physicians, Nurses, Infection Control practitioners, and Microbiology practitioners at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre (TBRHSC).

“Our goal is to educate on appropriate antimicrobial treatment for patients while reducing side effects and antimicrobial resistance in order to preserve limited, and often costly, antimicrobials, so they will continue working for generations to come.”

Given their knowledge and expertise, it should come as no surprise that Wilson and the pharmacy team have had a vital role in our Hospital’s pandemic response.

First Wave

When the pandemic first hit, there was a lot of anxiety. TBRHSC’s pharmacy had to figure out quickly how to maintain pharmacy services to the Hospital while keeping staff safe. “We are a big department,” says Pharmacist Adrianne Shippam. “We were just learning about physical distancing, and we didn’t have Plexiglas or the appropriate cubicles.” They split into two teams and rotated staff, trying to limit the number of people in the department on-site to 50 per cent.

In addition to providing ongoing clinical support throughout the Hospital, the department had to take on a new role in ICU drug management. “Every hospital was and is still preparing for a surge of COVID-19 patients in their ICU’s,” says Shippam. “We need to ensure we will have ample supplies, working closely with purchasing and technicians.”

COVID-19 Vaccination Roll-out

In November 2020, the pharmacy team learned that they would have an essential role in the vaccination roll-out. Shippam was invited to be the Pharmacy Lead for the newly created Vaccination Task Force, allowing Department Manager, Carina Desramaux to continue to focus on managing stock and preparing our hospital for an ICU surge.

They had to rapidly adapt as the pandemic unfolded and as new research became available. “Initially, we didn’t know which vaccines we would receive,” says Shippam. “Some vaccines have rigid storage requirements, such as ultra low temperature freezers. We prepared for everything.”

Shippam collaborates with partners like the Thunder Bay District Health Unit under the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care to strategize how to rollout the vaccination locally, which was particularly challenging in the early days with limited supplies. Their goal was to vaccinate the highest risk individuals as quickly as possible.

Wilson works on logistics and operations on the task force, developing standards of practice, reviewing the rapidly evolving evidence, and making sure the vaccine gets where it needs to go while maintaining its integrity in storage and in transit. “Once we started the rollout, we realized how complex the vaccine is in terms of its fragility, and storage and security requirements. It takes a lot of organizing.”

Wilson says that while the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging, it has also created new opportunities for Pharmacy staff to work closely with other staff and clinicians in the hospital and throughout the province.

“We have been resources on best practices for COVID-19 vaccines, not only for clinicians in this hospital, but also for hospitals, community clinics, and health units in other regions. Everyone is sharing information and helping each other, so that we can all distribute and administer the vaccines as quickly and effectively as possible.”

Left to right: Andrea Winters, Pharmacy Technician and leading Pharmacy Technician Vaccine team; Charlene Wilson, ASP Pharmacist, COVID-19 vaccine Pharmacy expert; and Adrianne Shippam, Pharmacy Lead for the Vaccination Task Force.

Working Together to Get Through the Pandemic

Before the pandemic, Andrea Winters, Pharmacy Technician, worked in the infusion clinic in the Cancer Centre and the TBRHSC Specialty Pharmacy. Because of her expertise in compounding IV and sterile handling, she was asked to be the lead technician for the vaccination clinic, which she says, “was both exciting and a bit intimidating.”

“We had five days to set up freezers, standards of practice, and get up and running. We were working with a fast-paced, constantly changing plan.”

Winters says it has been wonderful to be involved in the vaccination roll-out and is proud to see the hospital taking on this role and serving so many people. “Everyone involved can see the gratitude from patients for all the hard work we’re doing. This would not have worked without having a team.”

Wilson says she too is impressed with everyone on the pharmacy team, as they continue to have a major role in managing the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. “Everyone in the department adapted quickly and helped each other out. I feel grateful to be part of a strong pharmacy team that has stepped up to all of the challenges that have come our way.”

Shippam agrees. “It has been great to have the whole pharmacy team involved in this response and to showcase their skills and knowledge.”

“This pandemic has given our department the opportunity to collaborate with other departments in the hospital, allowing people to put a face to pharmacy and get to know each other and work together to get through this pandemic.”