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Fighting to end the pandemic, one shot at a time

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MANHASSET, N.Y. — In her 35 years as a pharmacist, Helen Maser has never experienced times as challenging as these — or as rewarding. When the coronavirus began spreading in March 2020, and as it became clear that it was a full-blown pandemic, pharmacists like Maser kicked into high gear and demonstrated why they are among the most trusted professionals in the country.

From the onset, Maser says one of her top priorities was providing her patients with a sense of comfort by alleviating their concerns about the pandemic and answering the many questions they had.

“People were really scared,” says Maser, a pharmacy manager at the Walgreens here on Plandome Road in Manhasset, which is located on the North Shore of Long Island in Nassau County, N.Y. “They didn’t have a lot of information, and a lot of our time was spent coaching the patients on how to protect themselves, because we are the primary source of this information for our patients.”

Initially, the bulk of those questions related to staying safe, such as hand washing, sanitizers, social distancing — “we basically became the information hub for our customers, with really good sound advice. And we also had to dispel a lot of rumors that were out there based on bad information.”

And yet, despite the gathering storm of COVID, Maser’s regular duties — such as medication therapy management, filling prescriptions and addressing the numerous non-pandemic-related issues of patients — remained.

“So, while still performing our regular functions we also had to start a whole new attitude of being the providers of great information for our customer base to help them protect themselves,” she explains.

Game changer

For Maser, who grew up in Detroit and received her Bachelor of Science in pharmacy from Wayne State University in 1985, administering vaccines is nothing new. She has not only given vaccines throughout her career but she’s also been training other pharmacists in immunizations since she arrived in New York a decade ago. But now, with more than half a million Americans dead due to the pandemic — and potentially more transmissible variants of the virus emerging — the development of COVID vaccines in historic time has become a game changer.

Helen Maser vaccinating a Walgreens customer

Though Walgreens is part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program launched in February, Maser began giving shots to patients in long-term-care facilities in December as well as essential workers in those facilities and in hospitals; and now, as more volume of the vaccines become available, Maser has been administering between 20 and 50 shots per day in her store, mostly to those 60 and older and to teachers, school staff, and childcare and day-care workers.

Manhasset’s Walgreens serves a diverse community, Maser says, and it is in close proximity to several major hospitals. And many in that community, she notes, are senior patients that are more vulnerable to severe cases of COVID, which makes getting the vaccines administered even more critical.

Of the three FDA-approved vaccines — Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson — which one is administered is determined by the CDC allotment a provider receives. There is no choice among patients or providers. And like other health care professionals, Maser advises Americans to get whichever vaccine first becomes available to them.

“These are very safe and effective vaccines, and we want as many people to get vaccinated as possible,” Maser says, adding that to reach that goal requires everyone pulling in the same direction. “It can be a challenge, but it’s been a whole team effort. I’m really proud of my staff. We’re really staying on top of it,” she says. “It’s really rewarding, because our customers are really thankful that they’re getting the vaccine.”

Logistically, the J&J vaccine has made the rollout a bit smoother because it not only adds to the quantity of vaccine available but only requires one dose as opposed to the two doses required by the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. This lessens the burden on providers scheduling the second shot and on those coming back for their follow-up booster. But regardless of which vaccine she administers, Maser says Walgreens is making sure they get the job done.

“I know a lot of people are having a tough time at certain sites trying to schedule their vaccine. And I’m really proud of Walgreens because they’ve set up multiple ways that patients can schedule their vaccine,” she says, “especially for those who don’t have computers or are not tech savvy. As a company, it’s important for us to give this excellent customer service and limit the disparity.”

Along with information on its website, Walgreens has a toll-free number for vaccine information and scheduling. “So, I think we’re really in a great place to improve our customer service and get everybody vaccinated so we can put an end to this pandemic.”

Skepticism

With more doses becoming readily available and larger groups of Americans becoming eligible to get vaccinated, Maser’s optimism that a return to normalcy is in sight has increased. However, whether COVID can finally be put behind us in the coming months or not depends on enough Americans — 75% to 80%, according to the scientific consensus — getting vaccinated. And one of the major obstacles to achieving that mark is not distribution so much as it is the hesitancy many Americans have about the vaccine.

According to a recent CBSNews/YouGov poll, while 55% of Americans say they either will receive or have already received the vaccine, 22% of Americans say they will “maybe” get the vaccine and another 22% say “no.” While skepticism toward the vaccines has fallen, unless those percentages come down even more, achieving the necessary herd immunity to stop the spread may not be reached. Of the 44% responding “maybe” or “no” to the poll, the majority, 58%, feel the vaccine hasn’t been tested enough and want to give it more time, while 47% are concerned about allergic reactions or side effects and 37% simply distrust the government.

Skepticism and hesitancy are factors that vaccinators have to contend with. In Maser’s experience so far, the majority of concerns she’s had to address are patients who are fearful about the side effects, with some worried that they will actually get the virus, which, as Maser has had to explain to these patients, is not possible. However, as the pandemic has progressed and more people have gotten vaccinated, Maser says fewer patients are voicing concerns and more lining up to get their shots. “At first, we had many people who were frightened because there were so many unknowns,” she says. “But I think through education and getting to know more about the vaccines more people are actually excited to finally getting their shot.”

Still, some remain fearful and need a little reassurance, which Maser is happy to give. And for Maser, the most comforting advice she can offer is her own personal experience of getting vaccinated. “So, I always say that I took the shot, I’m vaccinated, and I’m fine,” she says. “I tell them about the safety protocols that went into the vaccine and how they work.”

Once a patient has all that information, Maser believes, then that patient is able to make the best decision for his or her own health. And, so far, just about all of Maser’s customers have rolled up their sleeves to receive their dose.

In Maser’s experience, it’s mostly younger people who have questions and concerns about the vaccine, while older customers are ready to get their shots and get back to their lives prior to the pandemic. “They want to kiss their grandkids,” she says. As Maser explains to those with concerns, the vaccines are well tolerated, though she points to the side effects listed by the CDC, in particular fever, aches and pain, and other COVID-like symptoms that, again, are not the virus but in fact signs that the immune system is actually responding as intended and providing the protection the vaccines are designed to give.

Still, there are those who remain unsure, and when Maser encounters them she takes her time, talks to them and gives them the space they need. Recalling one such incident at a long-term-care facility evokes an emotional response from Maser.

“There was as a lady just milling about on the perimeter of the room who was clearly very nervous. She told me wanted to get the shot, but she was scared and had a lot of questions about its safety,” Maser says. “So, I patted my chair and told her to sit down and told her about the approval process, my own experience with getting the shot, that it wouldn’t give her the virus, and gave her the time she needed. And after talking to her just for a few minutes, she basically gave me her arm and said, ‘I’m ready to save my life.’ ”


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