Local pharmacy worried about plans to test for COVID-19

SEEKING to capitalise on the 8.8 million weekly customers walking into Queensland pharmacies seeking remedies for their flu-like symptoms, a controversial plan is being explored for pharmacists to conduct COVID-19 testing.

In a bid to increase testing capability in the state, in mid-August the Queensland Government flagged they intended to trial COVID-19 testing in pharmacies.

Deputy Premier and Health and Ambulance Services Minister Steven Miles said the pilot program was about making testing even more accessible.

“Until we have an approved vaccine for COVID-19, we will continue to rely on methods like testing to keep Queenslanders safe,” Mr Miles said.

Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles said the Queensland Government was exploring the possibility of pharmacists collecting samples for COVID-19. Picture: Dan Peled
Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles said the Queensland Government was exploring the possibility of pharmacists collecting samples for COVID-19. Picture: Dan Peled

“That’s why we’re launching a pilot program to trial testing for COVID-19 in pharmacies.”

Mr Miles said community pharmacies across the state could take part in the pilot project over the next few months.

The controversial suggestion has both doctors and pharmacists worried it could be a “recipe for disaster” and a “sure-fire way to spread the virus”.

Rockhampton Chemist Warehouse managing partner Paul Arnold said there was considerable pushback to the proposal and he was “not overly supportive”.

Without knowing the full details behind the plan, he said he couldn’t see “how you could physically and logistically do it”.

“They devil will be in the detail,” Mr Arnold said.

There are concerns that CQ pharmacies like Rockhampton’s Chemist Warehouse could be used to collect COVID-19 specimens in the future.
There are concerns that CQ pharmacies like Rockhampton’s Chemist Warehouse could be used to collect COVID-19 specimens in the future.

He didn’t know whether the public would embrace the idea but he would only consider it if the safety of his customers could be assured.

Mr Arnold shared the concerns raised by other stakeholders like the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM) and Rural Doctors Association of Australia (RDAA) who said it would be “incredibly difficult” to control the spread of the virus in pharmacies, if customers with symptoms attend pharmacies to be tested.

Serious concerns about the trial have also been raised by the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, the Queensland branch of Professional Pharmacists Australia, the AMA and other medical organisations.

ACRRM President Ewen McPhee said it was beyond crazy for the Queensland Government to push ahead with this trial, when even much of the pharmacy profession was warning against it.

“Pharmacies themselves have been working hard since the start of the pandemic to urge those with COVID symptoms to stay home and get tested, rather than visit their pharmacies,” Dr McPhee said.

“Yet the Queensland Government and Pharmacy Guild are now saying ‘if you have COVID symptoms, it is okay to visit a pharmacy to get tested’ – this is not only dangerous to other customers, many of whom have chronic illnesses, but also to pharmacy staff.

Rockhampton residents lining up outside Rockhampton Base Hospital for COVID-19 testing. (file photo)
Rockhampton residents lining up outside Rockhampton Base Hospital for COVID-19 testing. (file photo)

“In other settings like respiratory clinics and general practices, COVID testing is undertaken away from other patients, typically via separate entrances. Many general practices are also screening all patients prior to entry to their practices, and ensuring social distancing in their waiting rooms.

“Achieving this in pharmacies is virtually impossible, meaning potential COVID patients will be in close proximity to other customers.”

RDAA President John Hall said this trial had real potential to be for Queensland what hotel quarantine was for Victoria – a tragically wrong turn in the road.

“With all the promotion that the Queensland Health Minister has been giving the trial, many people will assume they can turn up at any pharmacy to get a COVID test. This is a recipe for disaster,” Dr Hall said.

“It’s time to get real – there are already many COVID testing clinics in place across Queensland, and where there is a genuine need for more testing, hours will be increased.

“Rural pharmacists are a highly valued member of the healthcare team in rural communities, and work with GPs and Rural Generalist doctors to provide high quality care.

“Many of our rural doctor members say pharmacists in their communities are extremely concerned at the push for COVID testing to be undertaken in pharmacies.

The Queensland Vice President of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia Chris Owen at his pharmacy in Brisbane after the Queensland Government announced that COVID-19 testing will be piloted in community pharmacies across Queensland. Picture: Dan Peled
The Queensland Vice President of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia Chris Owen at his pharmacy in Brisbane after the Queensland Government announced that COVID-19 testing will be piloted in community pharmacies across Queensland. Picture: Dan Peled

“Many pharmacists don’t want this trial. Most pharmacy and medical organisations don’t want this trial. This trial has more potential to spread COVID than to help control it. So why push on with it?”

Mr Miles responded to the criticism urging people not to get “get caught up in the hysteria” over the issue saying his government wouldn’t be trialling anything unless they thought it was safe.

The government only intended to allow those to participate where they choose to, where they volunteer and where they have appropriate spaces.

“The Chief Health Officer has initiated this trial project,” he said.

“It will commence initially in a small number of pharmacies. It will be voluntary.

“It won’t be advertised so the idea won’t be the drag people in, however people are still going to pharmacies to get Strepsils, to get cold and flu drugs, to get medications for the kinds of symptoms that we want to test for COVID-19 and so this is a chance for them to be told in the pharmacy “you should get a COVID-19 test and we can offer that here for you now on the spot”. That’s all it is.”

He said there were a range of organisations with their own interests making claims about what this trial.

“But it is small scale, very safe and designed to opportunistically test people with the symptoms that we want to test for COVID-19 who are there already,” he said.

“To be eligible to take part in the trial the pharmacy will need to both have a space that is appropriate and staff that are trained appropriately as well as access to the appropriate protective equipment.”

“Many of them have within their premises pathology collection locations already and obviously, they would lend themselves to an immediate referral from the request to that collection point.”



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