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The only pharmacy in town: keeping our local community safe

By Jennifer Precians

I am co-owner of Oberon Pharmacy located in Oberon NSW, with my business partner, Allison O’Driscoll.

Oberon is a small town, about 30 minutes from Bathurst and Lithgow. We are the only pharmacy in the town. We have 14 employees, including pharmacists, pharmacy assistants and dispensary technicians. We have owned the pharmacy since 2010, but the pharmacy itself has been an integral part of the town for many, many years before that.

When COVID-19 hit

In the initial stage we were extremely busy. People were understandably worried that medicines and other healthcare supplies would be in short supply, so they stocked up. We were trying to make our pharmacy COVID-safe, by introducing protective measures, but with a huge increase in customers this was difficult. Staff were worried about the virus, and potentially putting themselves and their families at risk. We did have a few staff members resign because of this. We also have staff members with health conditions, including supressed immune systems, and had to ensure these staff members didn’t have interactions with patients.

People wanted to talk to the pharmacists privately about their concerns, but with social distancing this was a real issue. We wore masks and tried our best to have private conversations without putting anyone’s health at risk.

The days were long, and our staff were tired. Along with the increased customers, we had to spend a lot of extra time sourcing stock from different wholesalers as the panic buying was causing essential medicines and supplies to go out-of-stock. Extra cleaning was also a priority, and this added to staff workloads.

The local COVID-19 health team

We were part of an Oberon COVID-19 health team that met weekly with the local council, GPs, hospital, ambulance, police and aged care facility. We coordinated our responses to the pandemic and ensured that we were all working on the same page. It was fantastic to all be working together, and the community really appreciated it. From this, a local community group formed that helped watch out for, and check up on, the most vulnerable members of our community. The ones with no family or friends living close by.

The major issue that we were facing was the possibility of the entire pharmacy team having to be quarantined if a staff member were to contract COVID–19. We are the only pharmacy in Oberon, and we could not see a way to keep the pharmacy open if this were to happen. This would have been disastrous for our local townspeople because of how much they relied on us, especially at this time of crisis.

Early on we made the decision to split into two teams, one team working 7am to 1pm and the other working from 1pm to 7pm. We put on some extra staff (locals who had been stood down from their hospitality jobs) and ensured we thoroughly cleaned the pharmacy between teams. We also closed between 1pm and 1.30pm for cleaning.

Staff members reorganised their lives to work around the new shifts, which we were extremely grateful for. We installed Perspex barriers at the dispensary and front counter, which allowed extra protection when talking to patients. We increased our messaging on social media to keep the community updated on services and supply. We also began offering a twice daily, contactless, free delivery service.

Coming out the other side

Now that we are coming out the other side (hopefully) I am feeling far more positive. Our daily workload is returning to normal, and we are starting to see patients we have not seen in months (due to them self-isolating) come back into the pharmacy.

We really missed seeing our older patients in the pharmacy, some of whom have been coming in weekly for the past ten years. We also missed having children in the pharmacy, and it has also been lovely to see some visitors come back to the area and call in on weekends. I do not think we realised how much having these interactions with patients really made our work rewarding.

I am feeling hopeful that we may not lose as many (if any at all) lives as was predicted in the start, as we believe the elderly are the lifeblood in our community.

And I am feeling ecstatic that the kids have gone back to school! We pulled the kids out of school early, as I was worried about having to quarantine and the effect that would have on the pharmacy. We actually enjoyed the extra time with the kids, especially on weekends where there was no sport and social activities to attend. I must admit it was lovely to wave them off as they returned to their teachers and friends at school.

Looking after the team

The added workload and hours were a very real strain on myself and the other staff. Added to this was the lack of social interaction, though I do think we were lucky to still have the interaction at work. Once restrictions were lifted enough, we began going for a walk as a team when our shift finished at 1pm. This allowed us to relax and unwind after the morning rush and meant that once we got home and the work began there, we had already had our exercise. We also treated ourselves to yummy morning tea from the local cafes! Our team has remained very positive and upbeat during this time, and we all feel lucky that we have employment, especially with so many businesses being forced to close. Yummy morning teas and walks have helped to keep team morale high. They will all deserve a lovely holiday when this settles down too.

Thinking local

We have discovered that we can accomplish anything if we work together and work hard, and that if you communicate with your customers they will be understanding through difficult times. I have also seen a bigger emphasis on shopping local and supporting small business, which I hope will continue. I know myself that I have changed purchasing habits to reflect this as well.

About Jennifer Precians

Jennifer Precians (BPharm.) is co-owner of Oberon Pharmacy in NSW, with her business partner, Allison O’Driscoll. The Oberon Pharmacy is the only pharmacy in town. Jennifer lives in O’Connell with her husband, Richie, and two children, Lucy and Will.

This blog piece was contributed by our partners from the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, as part of their work with Everymind and on their Wellbeing in Rural Small Business project.

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