Fri | May 29, 2020

Pharmacies fear shortages, paranoia could cause chaos

Published:Sunday | March 29, 2020 | 12:00 AMCorey Robinson - Senior Staff Reporter
Ian Allen/Photographer Persons waiting to get their prescription filled at Drug Serv Pharmacy at Union Square, Cross Roads yesterday.
Kenyon Hemans/Photographer Shantoya Blackwood gets her hand sanitised by Elwaldo Millder before she could enter March’s Drug Store in downtown Kingston on Thursday.
Dick KinKead Pharmacy in downtown Kingston is kept busy all day since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Pharmacies across Jamaica have been hit hard by the COVID-19 scare, and it seems that those in the rural areas are hurting the most, as a shortage of medication for the symptoms, sanitisation products and fear of exposure to the respiratory disease sweep the industry.

To make matters worse, some pharmacists say several customers are not taking the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the Government’s social-distance guidelines seriously, which has sparked heated stand-offs between persons at some outlets, while others have become quite paranoid.

“Some of the pharmacies out in the country are concerned that there is a higher risk of them seeing patients who may have been exposed to the virus,” Dr Ernestine Watson, president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Jamaica (PSJ), shared with The Sunday Gleaner.

The PSJ represents some 1,500 pharmacists islandwide.

“Those of us in Kingston are trying to follow the guidelines of the health ministry, but the pharmacies in the rural areas are where people use as a go-to for everything, even before they see a doctor. Those pharmacists are concerned that they might be more at risk,” she explained, adding that drugstores across the country have stepped up precautionary measures since the outbreak of COVID-19.

At the same time, Watson said rural pharmacies are more affected by supply shortage, and that like some counterparts in the Corporate Area, they have had to seek out unconventional sources, such as wholesales, for some supplies. Things have reached such a critical phase that some rural drugstores are now purchasing supplies from Kingston pharmacies, she said.

“We do not have sufficient medication. We are out of vitamin C, we are out of rubbing alcohol, and we are out of hand sanitisers,” Watson said. “And most pharmacists have to ensure that whatever supplies are available, we access some for use on the job.”

This, she said, has driven up the demand and subsequently the cost of some items at the pharmacies, although many have come out to debunk claims of price gouging.

Watson is urging pharmacists to remain vigilant. She said most are now sanitising customers’ hands on entry, conducting staff temperature checks, and have reduced the number of persons allowed inside at any one time to 10 from 20, as it was when the virus first surfaced locally.

Jamaica now has 32 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the Government is tracking scores of persons they believe have come in contact with infected individuals.

At the same time, the Government has implemented several strict measures to help curtail the spread of the disease that has now infected some 650,926 persons, with approximately 30,299 deaths in over 202 countries across the globe. So far, approximately 139,555 persons have recovered.


The social-distancing measures have not always played out well among customers, said some pharmacists. One told The Sunday Gleaner that she has had to quell tempers on several occasions after scornful customers vulgarly demanded social distance from others.

“Many of the people who are coming in are paranoid, while not even taking the necessary precautions. That’s the only way I can put it,” said the pharmacist who works at a popular outlet downtown.

“When some are taking the prescription from you, they are scorning you, and some people come in their masks and gloves.”

She added, “Some people are telling others to ‘step back off a me!’ and that they don’t want anybody to touch them. You have other people who are stocking up on drugs even when they can’t afford it.”

Elderly patients are most affected, she said: “They are asking what this lockdown means for them. So it is as if every day we have to be explaining everything to patients, especially the older ones. Some of them just don’t understand.”

“It is a lot of craziness and we just have to be trying to do our jobs. I think some people are still not adequately informed.”

The mother of two added that her stringent precautionary measures follow her home, where for the last month she has been taking off her clothes on her veranda.

At several of the pharmacies The Sunday Gleaner team visited, the hands of all customers were sprayed with sanitisers before they could enter. And as part of the Government’s COVID-19 social distancing and three to six feet apart rules, queues of customers were observed outside awaiting their turn to go inside. Many of the pharmacies were out of hand sanitisers for sale, while others had it far above the normal cost.


Rohan McNellie, president of the Jamaica Association of Private Pharmacy Operators, told The Sunday Gleaner that the industry has learnt several lessons since COVID-19 was first detected in Jamaica on March 10.

Those lessons could turn into nightmares for the close to 500 pharmacies islandwide if the respiratory disease peaks like what has been happening in other countries, he said.


“Our medicine industry needs to be diversified – spread out the sourcing to varying countries. The most of everything is concentrated in one geographical location,” he explained, naming China and India as the sources of most of the raw material used in medications that reach Jamaica.

“Maybe going forward we need to stock up on inventory, having a better and larger inventory of about 10 months supply to a year at our pharmacies. It may be expensive but it is something to consider.”

He added, “We are not yet in panic mode but if it continues into another six months, I think that is when we will start to see real panic.”

Rubbishing reports that some drugstores are unfairly increasing the prices of items that are in short supply, McNellie explained that it was inevitable that the prices of some in-demand items will increase, as pharmacies source them from unconventional suppliers.


- Customers must carefully assess purchases; do not overstock on non-essentials; check the expiration dates and use the stock with the shortest expiration date first.

- 70 per cent rubbing alcohol can be used to sanitise the hands and surfaces.

- Persons can make alcohol or chlorine wipes by using wet wipes (even dried-out ones), by soaking them with 70 per cent rubbing alcohol or dilute chlorine cleaning solution.

- To make a chlorine cleaning solution, use one teaspoonful (5ml) to one cup (240 ml) of water.

- Persons must be cautious when taking multivitamins and herbal products, as excessive use may lead to drug interactions and adverse events.