(AP Photo, Matt Rourke)
Photo: Matt Rourke
Photo: Matt Rourke

Opinion: Expand pharmacists’ authority to help fight this pandemic

As Georgia joins a number of states in lifting its shelter at home order and allows many businesses to reopen, it is important to remember that we are still in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. As of May 13, Georgia has reported over 35,000 cases and over 1,500 deaths while the U.S. has nearly 1.4 million confirmed cases and over 84,000 deaths.

National healthcare experts are predicting COVID-19 may cost 100,000 to 250,000 Americans their lives before this crisis is over and our nation’s heroic healthcare workers are putting their own health and safety in jeopardy to provide patients with the best care possible.

Among those on the frontlines of this global pandemic working to keep us safe are America’s pharmacists and other pharmacy personnel. These highly accessible healthcare providers are working in a variety of settings, including the intensive care units treating the sickest patients infected with the virus, as well as in communities where they are making free hand sanitizer and ensuring their patients are still getting the prescriptions and supplies they need to stay healthy.

But these stories only show part of what America’s pharmacists are capable of doing.

Through their daily interactions with community members across the country, coupled with their role as the medication experts on healthcare teams, pharmacists can uniquely speak to the policies and practices needed to help keep populations healthy and safe.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched our healthcare system to its limit with our heroic healthcare workers in several states already dealing with more patients then they can reasonably be expected to handle. While America’s pharmacists are currently providing essential services to patients across the country, we need federal, state, and local regulatory bodies to put in place protocols to free up our nation’s pharmacists to do what they do best — take care of patients.

We applaud the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) new guidance authorizing licensed pharmacists to order and administer COVID-19 tests. However, more needs to be done. Therefore, we ask President Trump’s COVID-19 Task Force to consider the following four recommendations that would go a long way in our fight against this deadly disease.

First, pharmacists need to be authorized to test, treat, immunize and, when appropriate, initiate treatment for infectious diseases, like COVID-19. Ninety percent of the U.S. population lives within five miles of a pharmacist and these medication experts are often a patient’s most convenient option to speak with a healthcare professional with the training to conduct testing and provide basic treatment. Pharmacists should have expanded immunization authority to include all FDA-approved vaccines, including the forthcoming novel vaccine for COVID-19, for all indicated populations.

Second, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians with valid licenses should be allowed to operate across state lines, including via telehealth. This is an unprecedented crisis, impacting some regions more than others. Pharmacists are ready to help their neighbors across state lines.

Third, pharmacists should be able to address shortages and continuity of care issues. The rapid spread of this virus and utter strain on our healthcare system is leading to critical drug shortages. Pharmacists should be authorized to substitute and interchange therapies, as appropriate and needed, without waiting for physician authorization when product shortages arise. We also recommend that FDA should identify drugs that are in, or at risk, of shortage and work with manufacturers to extend expiration date, as well as allow public reporting of the causes of shortages.

Finally, we need to remove barriers and expand healthcare coverage for pharmacy services. One obvious fix would be to remove restrictions on home and mail delivery, especially now when we are telling our most vulnerable citizens to stay home as much as possible. We should also remove limited medication supply requirements for essential, life-sustaining medications to ensure patients will have an ample supply of these medications during these difficult times.

During this time of uncertainty and global anxiety, our best tools to fight this invisible threat are through common sense approaches to public health. We need to trust the experts and enable them to do what they do best: provide quality care for their patients.

Pharmacists all over the country are already positioned in healthcare settings to support our strained system. By expanding their authority, they can perform the essential services needed to combat this pandemic and save lives.

U.S. Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, R-Pooler, represents Georgia’s 1st Congressional District. He is a pharmacist. Lucinda L. Maine, Ph.D., R.Ph., is executive vice president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP).

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