Certified Technicians Play a Feature Role in COVID-19 Response, Vaccinations
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmacy technicians spent most of their shifts helping patients, billing insurance, stocking the pharmacy area, dispensing prescriptions, and other administrative duties. However, COVID-19 quickly changed that.
In Harlan, Iowa, a rural community located in the western part of the state with a population of fewer than 5000, the Harlan Hy-Vee Pharmacy is a staple in the community and has become even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kristen Lund, a full-time certified technician at the pharmacy, describes Harlan as a small and friendly community.
“We know a large majority of our patients, and their families, by name,” she said.
In fact, the pharmacy has a reputation for sending personalized birthday cards to patients every year. It’s this level of patient care that goes above and beyond as well as strong relationships with patients that have positioned the pharmacy as a trusted place within the tight-knit community.
Hy-Vee, a Midwestern grocer and the largest pharmacy provider in Iowa, has more than 270 retail pharmacy locations spread across its 8-state region and employs more than 2700 pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. Lund began her career with Hy-Vee as a pharmacy technician in 2015, drawn to the people who worked there and the many benefits the retailer provides, such as a 401(k) program, bonuses, insurance, and employee discounts. Prior to that, she worked in another pharmacy for 5 years.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Lund and her fellow technicians spent most of their shifts helping patients at the counter, collecting patient information, billing insurance, stocking the pharmacy area, dispensing prescriptions, and other administrative duties.
However, COVID-19 quickly changed that.
Currently, Lund and her pharmacy colleagues’ responsibilities have evolved to also include enhanced cleaning and sanitization practices that are maintained throughout the pharmacy, additional pharmacy drive-thru services, and COVID-19 vaccinations. In 2020, Hy-Vee also saw an unprecedented demand in prescriptions.
As a result, the role of pharmacy technicians has expanded greatly, helping to redistribute the pharmacy workload in order to maintain a high level of patient care. In August 2020, Hy-Vee was approved by the Iowa Board of Pharmacy to participate in a pilot program allowing pharmacy technicians to administer immunizations to patients.
Lund and one of her colleague technicians jumped at the chance to expand their responsibilities and pharmacy experience, and were able to complete all of their certification training within 1 week in August through online training and an in-person course. Lund spent her evenings after work and in between spending time with her husband and 3 children to study for her certification.
“When we first became certified to administer vaccines, it was primarily just for flu shots,” Lund said.
Lund and the other pharmacy technician administered more than half of the Harlan Hy-Vee’s flu shots during the 2020 season—totaling more than 1000 shots administered between the technician duo. The immunizations were administered inside the retail pharmacy and through an outdoor drive-thru clinic, a new concept that Hy-Vee launched in 2020 as a result of the pandemic.
Lund has also played a role in helping administer other immunizations, such as shingles, pneumonia, and tetanus, along with helping administer rapid COVID-19 antibody tests, which test for past COVID-19 infection.
Since the initial launch of the Hy-Vee’s immunization technician training pilot program, 500 Hy-Vee pharmacy technicians have become certified to immunize.
The COVID-19 Vaccine
The Harlan Hy-Vee Pharmacy began receiving its first shipments of COVID-19 vaccine supply in mid-February 2021. At that time, Hy-Vee had just been named a partner in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program in Iowa, receiving vaccine supply directly from the CDC. In Harlan, Lund was at the forefront of distributing the vaccine, helping administer some of the first doses that became available to the community.
“It’s been pretty rewarding to see how relieved and thankful people are to have that chance to come in,” Lund said. “You hear about people who haven’t seen their family for over a year, and it makes you feel good that you are a part of helping them get closer to seeing their family again.”
In February, the Harlan Hy-Vee Pharmacy administered more than 315 COVID-19 vaccines—more than 98% of which were administered by Lund and another certified technician.
By the end of February, the pharmacy hired 2 retired nurses who were able to relieve the pharmacists and certified pharmacy technicians from the majority of the day-to-day COVID-19 vaccine administration. This allowed Lund and her colleagues more time to focus on maintaining a high level of patient care and handle other COVID-19 vaccine responsibilities, such as drawing up vaccine, vaccination billing, and answering customer inquiries about vaccine availability.
The Harlan Hy-Vee Pharmacy is among only a few pharmacies in town that offer the COVID-19 vaccine. As a result, the pharmacy’s online scheduler fills up fast and some patients travel across the state just to secure a shot. The limited vaccine supply has been among the largest hurdles during the vaccine rollout, according to Lund.
“You can only give shots that you have,” she said. “It’s hard to tell people ‘no’ because your job is to make their day better.”
Another challenge, according to Lund, is finding a “new normal” in the day-to-day pharmacy operations—first with masks, cleaning, and social distancing in the early days of the pandemic—and now with COVID-19 vaccines. There has been a continual learning curve as new protocols are quickly developed and new vaccines authorized with varying storage and handling procedures.
Fortunately, Lund said she has a strong support system with both her pharmacy colleagues and her patients, many of whom she has known for years. It’s these relationships, particularly with patients, that have positioned the Harlan Hy-Vee Pharmacy and pharmacy staff as trusted sources when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It makes me feel very helpful in that I am able to contribute something to Hy-Vee and to the community as far as helping get the vaccine distributed and be there as support for my co-workers and for our patients,” Lund said. “It means a lot that we can do our part to try to make this transition as smooth as possible for everybody.”