Danny Wolak (left), pharmacy manager in Chicago, and Jeff Fawver, pharmacy manager in Montgomery, Ill., wear personal protective equipment at Walgreens’ drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Bolingbrook, Ill.During the quiet, 45-minute drive from my home in Chicago to Walgreens’ drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Bolingbrook, Ill., I pass an overhead sign on the highway. It says “FLATTEN THE CURVE” in big, glowing letters. Each morning, like an angry alarm clock, it acts as my wake-up call. I see it and think, how am I flattening the curve today? And I have a good answer: I’m a Walgreens pharmacy manager who’s volunteering at the company’s testing sites in Illinois, performing a role that pharmacists have never played before.
Answering the call
One Saturday night in March, around the time the stay-at-home order was issued for Illinois, I received a phone call from my health care supervisor. My first thought was … isn’t it 7 p.m. on a Saturday? But then he said, “Do you want to be part of our first group of pharmacists to help test patients for COVID-19?” Of course I did. The role of the pharmacist continues to expand, and this would allow us to keep advocating for that. Plus, a pandemic is something none of us have ever experienced – this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help patients during such an important time.
What happened next
On Monday, all the volunteers – Walgreens pharmacy managers, district managers, health care supervisors and corporate support staff – attended a webinar to talk through how the initial testing was going to work. We had some really good discussions and were able to give feedback on the process. We kept saying, “What if this happens? How can we make it more patient-friendly?” Four days later, after additional in-person training with clinicians and on-site walk-throughs in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other government regulators, we had the first Walgreens drive-thru site up and running in Bolingbrook. Since then, Walgreens opened an additional testing site in Chicago and announced plans to expand to 15 new locations across seven states.
The learning curve
I was at the Bolingbrook location almost every day for the next 2½ weeks, working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. In addition to helping get the cars in line and making sure patients were registered, I also helped oversee the testing. The initial tests were nasopharyngeal – using a swab that goes through the nose to the back of the throat – but we’re now using Abbott’s new ID NOW COVID-19 test, which is self-administered by the patient. (This is a real game changer, and much easier for the patient since it’s a simple swab.) Another thing we had to learn was the donning and doffing of personal protective equipment (PPE) – how to put it on and take it off correctly – to make sure our exposure risk is at a minimum. We do learn that in pharmacy school, but don’t practice it on a daily basis in a retail setting. Being at the site every day was scary in the beginning because the virus was growing so exponentially, but after I realized we had PPE, were properly trained in how to use it and were practicing social distancing, I felt safe. It’s always safety-first, and I feel confident when I’m there.
Finding a new normal
Currently, my weekdays are spent at my normal Walgreens – a community-based specialty pharmacy in Chicago – so that I can still balance the workload across my team. My weekends are spent at the testing sites. The work environments are obviously different, but I’ve also noticed some similarities. The way we collect and verify a patient’s information is similar to how we would do so at a flu clinic or other remote location. And because the new tests from Abbott are self-administered, I find the process to be a lot like patient counseling. While the patient is in their car with the window rolled up, I’m outside demonstrating how to perform the test, observing them and guiding them through it. It's like reviewing a new prescription with a patient to make sure they understand so they’ll be adherent.
On being called a hero
The word “hero” has come up a lot. When the HHS updated guidance to allow pharmacists to order and administer COVID-19 tests for the duration of the crisis, they called us “heroic health care workers.” We’ve also had several Walgreens leaders visit the testing sites not only to say that we’re making an impact, but also that we’re heroes – that we're saving lives. Even if we’re just taking down a patient’s information, no contribution is considered small or insignificant in helping to control this pandemic.
Mila the teacup Maltipoo
Every night when I get home from work, I remove my clothing right by the door and put everything in a garbage bag. I drop it straight into the laundry, without touching anything, and then take a shower. From there, I go back to my semi-normal life of building puzzles or watching Netflix with my boyfriend, or whatever that day of quarantine calls for. He works from home, so I told him from the beginning, “I'm taking on this role, so you're staying home. It doesn't matter if you have symptoms or not. I need to make sure we’re both healthy.” Because I’m still going to work, I’m also doing our grocery shopping so he doesn’t have to travel anywhere. And in return, he watches my puppy, Mila, a teacup Maltipoo, during the day. She's such a good girl, but I’m gone for 10 hours a day, and I would hate for her to be alone. So that’s why we decided to quarantine together. Even if we’re going a little stir crazy, at least we have each other.
Feels like family
A lot of the volunteers didn’t know each other before this started. We’re from different districts and areas, but we’ve gotten to become our own little family. We’ve been learning from each other and building on one another’s feedback in a very positive way. As the situation has evolved, we’ve also been constantly enhancing our processes, which is great because it has made us a well-oiled machine. I worked at the Chicago testing site last weekend after having been at my regular Walgreens all week, and it warmed my heart that the other volunteers welcomed me back with open arms, so to speak. We have a group text message going so we can easily communicate with each other when we’re not together. Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing if anybody needs anything or figuring out who's bringing coffee for the day. Teamwork is a good thing that we have going.
Some people might be thinking, why would I volunteer for this role? My answer is so I can feel more in control of the pandemic. I'm not the type of person to just sit back and wait for things to happen. I want to help in any way possible. And to be honest, every single time I’m at the site, in my head I think, what does this mean for the future of pharmacy? If they're allowing us to do this now, maybe in the future we’ll be testing patients for influenza at the pharmacy, for example. If the patient tests negative, you give them a flu shot. If not, we have a standing order for a Tamiflu prescription. It's just exciting to think about what’s to come for our profession. COVID-19 might be our greatest challenge, but it’s also our greatest opportunity to shine.