Reportage. We spoke with a pharmacist in Verona who says there is a chronic shortage of personal protective equipment. ‘Many people come to us without prescriptions, even twice on the same day, and often coming in groups.’

Italian pharmacists sound the alarm: ‘People come in even with fever’

There are more and more protests by Italian pharmacists who are denouncing the lack of safety at their workplace due to the coronavirus emergency. Together with general practitioners, pharmacies are the front line of the fight against the epidemic across the territory, but while access to the former has been largely restricted, pharmacies are staying open as usual, with the generic recommendation to only go there if necessary.

The main problem reported by the pharmacists’ organizations is that hundreds of them are working without safety equipment such as masks, gloves or disinfectants, a situation that is basically forcing them to serve the public without being able to comply with the safety measures provided by the government regulations. On March 12, Federfarma made an appeal to the Ministry of Health, in rather subdued tones.

However, there are pharmacies that are threatening to close if the safety equipment does not arrive, while in Bergamo there are some that have already been forced to shut their doors because all the pharmacists working at the same location tested positive for COVID-19. Then, there are dozens of pharmacies that are complaining of a high level of misinformation among the citizens, who are crowding their premises while ignoring the rules for limiting the contagion.

We spoke with Nicoletta (not her real name), 40, a pharmacist employed at a well-known pharmacy in Verona. In the city of Verona—according to the latest measures planned by the Veneto Region, which will probably also be followed by Emilia Romagna and Tuscany—all health workers, including pharmacists, will be swabbed for COVID-19. 

“It’s an important new measure, but if the masks we are wearing are not adequate, even if we all turn out to be negative, the next day it’s back to square one,” Nicoletta told us. “These latest provisions, like the previous ones, don’t seem to me to be adequate for the situation, because they don’t protect the health of the public and they don’t protect our health. First of all, they fail to take into account the chronic lack of safety equipment, such as gloves, masks and disinfectants, and they also fail to provide for the quarantining of pharmacists who have come into contact with an infected person. It is right that we should continue to guarantee our service, with the only recommendation being that we should be scrupulous in using safety equipment—which, however, doesn’t exist.”

She continues: “Furthermore, there’s also the behavior of the public, which is often irresponsible. Many people continue to think of pharmacies as places exempt from the government directives, which, as everyone knows, require that they should only go out of their homes in case of proven necessity. However, many people come to us without prescriptions, even twice on the same day, and often coming in groups. They come with the most varied requests imaginable. Some fear that they have become infected, are complaining of flu-like symptoms, in some cases even have a fever, and come to ask us for ‘medical’ advice that we obviously cannot give them. Others keep coming as if nothing has happened, asking us for beauty products, mud baths, creams or homeopathic medicine.”

The problem, she explains, is that “none of the sources of information, not even the institutions themselves, have communicated an authoritative message about pharmacies. It’s just as true for us that there are no shortages, and thus that people must not crowd our premises for no reason. It’s right that we should remain open to guarantee an essential service, but at the moment this can in no way include the purchase of things that are not life-saving equipment or medicines. We must strongly emphasize this point.”

Are the professional organizations doing anything? 

“There was a position taken by the Order of Pharmacists,” Nicoletta says, “which has not had much of an impact, however, as it was asking for prevention measures that are impossible to implement in reality, starting from a distance of at least one meter to be maintained even between colleagues. The top employers in the sector should loudly demand the strict regulation of the flow of people via an official decision. And this issue cannot be resolved by decreeing that pharmacies should work from behind closed doors, because most pharmacies are not architecturally fit for that purpose. The fundamental point must be to reemphasize the basic rules for coming to us: only one person per household, don’t come if you have a fever or other symptoms that might be related to the virus, wait outside for the counter to be free.”

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