Absences of hospital pharmacy staff skyrocket as COVID-19 cases rise

Some hospital pharmacy teams in England are facing absence rates of up to 30% and there is a risk that some services will be withdrawn if absence rates increase, chief pharmacists have said. The pharmaceutical journal.

The warning comes after the UK reported a record 218,724 COVID-19 cases on January 4, 2021, of which 148,725 were recorded in England.

The latest rise in COVID-19 cases, which have been steadily increasing since the Omicron variant was first detected in November 2021, has caused several hospital trusts declare a “critical incident”, which NHS England says occurs “when the level of disruption causes the organization to temporarily or permanently lose its ability to provide critical services”.

Raliat Onatade, Group Chief Pharmacist and Clinical Director for Medication Optimization at Barts Health NHS Trust, said the pharmacy team he trusted “was experiencing significant absences due to a combination of people who tested positive for COVID and others isolated because they are contacts ”.

“This was the case during the Christmas and New Years period and still continues. I don’t have all the numbers, but I estimate [the absence rate to be] between 20 and 30%, ”she said.

Due to the high absence rate, Onatade said the trust had “outsourced some of our aseptic production”, adding that the team was “also stretched in some areas and prioritized high risk units and exits. , minimizing office work and canceling non-priority meetings ”.

James Harris, chief pharmacist at North Durham University Hospital, said his team also had “a significant number of employees affected – around 10%”.

“This is a mix of staff who have tested positive, but also those identified as COVID-19 contacts.

“NHS staff must have a negative PCR [test] before I go back to work, and the public pillar 2 tests and our own hospital tests have capacity issues, ”Harris explained. “We are currently managing to prioritize our staff for internal testing. “

As part of the government’s national testing strategy, “pillar 2” includes PCR tests for the entire population.

Harris added that to deal with staff absences, the pharmacy team had “redeployed the pharmacy management staff to support operational and clinical functions – to cover ITU for example – and free up staff from their jobs. dispensary functions to provide clinical coverage of services ”.

“We have not yet had to withdraw any service, but we will have to consider it if other staff members are positive,” he continued.

Ruth Ayre, deputy chief pharmacist in the towns of central and southern Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, said her team ‘currently manages a 15% staff absence in the pharmacy department, including 80% are COVID-19 in relation “.

She said the pharmacy team was able to maintain pharmacy services using Microsoft Teams, electronic drug prescribing and administration systems, and electronic patient records, as well as “cross-site coverage and prioritization of clinical pharmacy service to support inpatient services rather than mental health. community teams (while providing responses to remote inquiries and some essential clinical activities on site) ”.

“We have increased our involvement in inpatient areas, where possible, to help nursing and physician colleagues perform more medicine-related tasks,” Ayre said. “This is regularly reviewed to ensure that our own medicine supply department is not affected. “

Roger Fernandes, director of pharmacy at King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, said his trust also had “staff absences at all of our sites but no different from other departments in the hospital and certainly no different from other hospitals in London” , adding that a good vaccination “helped”.

In December 2021, NHS England declared national level 4 incident “In recognition of the impact on the NHS of both supporting the vital increase in the immunization program and preparing for a potentially significant increase in COVID-19 cases.”

This led to the introduction of a series of measures to free up capacity within NHS trusts, including the temporary suspension of Quality of Care Commission inspections.

Community pharmacy has long faced workforce challenges, with high-level talks currently underway between pharmacy officials and government officials to discuss the limited availability of pharmacists for community pharmacy roles.

However, Leyla Hannbeck, executive director of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, said the pharmacy staff undertaking the COVID-19 isolation “add to this already significant workforce challenge and we have independent reports and multiples of branch closures because of this. ”.

A spokesperson for the National Pharmacy Association added that he was “concerned that many pharmacies may face staffing shortages in the coming weeks, and we are monitoring the situation.”

Below national orientation, community pharmacies are able to give NHS England 24 hours’ notice of temporary changes in opening hours or temporary closures “in exceptional circumstances where a contractor is unable to hire a (substitute) pharmacist and therefore unable to open the pharmacy during his contractual hours, despite all efforts to do so ”.

Gordon Hockey, legal director of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, said: “The recent increase in the number of cases among the general population will be reflected in pharmacies, with some areas reporting they are feeling the pressure more intensely.

“We know entrepreneurs are working tirelessly to keep their doors open during this latest wave, but the NHS needs to take a pragmatic and flexible approach to supporting pharmacies through the winter.”

Read more: There is an official shortage of pharmacists: what now?


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Lillian L. Pena