Pharmacists Work Through Northern California Firestorms

November 9, 2017

In the middle of terrible disaster, pharmacists were there.

Pharmacists across Northern California stayed on the job through firestorms that sent more than 100,000 residents fleeing for their lives.

“Our pharmacist and owner, Robert Pellegrini, didn’t leave the pharmacy for three days,” said Debbi Ling, Operations Manager at Tuttle’s Doyle Park Pharmacy in Santa Rosa, an area worst hit by the fires. The pharmacy gave away thousands of prescriptions because it didn’t have the time or staff to deal with rejected claims for those who didn’t have insurance cards or a prescription on file. “When people are running out the door without their inhalers or their insulin or even their glasses, it’s more important to get them their medications than worry about who is going to pay for it,” she said. That’s what pharmacists do.”

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A few miles away, Dollar Drug sat between charred remains of two neighborhoods. “We were just two blocks away from being evacuated,” said co-owner Mark Guttormsen, PharmD. Winds drove embers that torched entire neighborhoods in minutes, he said. “There isn’t anyone on staff who didn’t lose their home, wasn’t evacuated, usually multiple times as the winds shifted, or has evacuees staying with them.” They kept filling scripts for people who had nothing but the clothes they were wearing. “We weren’t concerned about getting paid, there were more important things going on.”

The state Insurance Commissioner put initial damage estimates at more than $1 billion.  

One pharmacy had smoke and water damage, said Virginia Herold, Executive Director of California’s State Board of Pharmacy; multiple pharmacies were closed by evacuation orders, but no pharmacies burned.

Walgreens and CVS, the dominant chains in the region, said all their pharmacies were undamaged and back open within a few days. Safeway brought in pharmacists from around the state to help.

Pellegrini, an RPh, kept Tuttle’s Doyle Park Pharmacy open as the line of evacuees who needed emergency fills wound out the door into dense clouds of smoke. 

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Paul Lofholm, PharmD, owner of Ross Valley Pharmacy, was one of dozens of pharmacists who volunteered for emergency services and worked at a Red Cross evacuation center. 

“Red Cross triaged patients to us if they needed medications,” Lofholm said. “One of the biggest problem in evacuation centers was simply getting medications, either for patients or for the medical teams dealing with burns, injuries, and respiratory problems. Hospitals and pharmacies were closed by evacuations and supply chains were disrupted. There was a lot of making do and calling to see who was still open and had stock we could get to.”

Richie Duenas, PharmD, has two pharmacies near the fire area. “The Board of Pharmacy allows us to dispense as needed in case of emergency,” he said. “We can throw meds in a van and go mobile if that’s what it takes. But these fires, spread across four or five counties, showed just how fragile the supply chain is. Our UPS driver was wearing all the right protective gear, but his eyes were bloodshot and streaming from the smoke and he was wheezing through his mask. He was getting through with meds and plasma for pharmacies and shelters, but barely. We need something more reliable.”

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OTCs and supplies were another problem. Health authorities as far away as San Francisco recommended N95 masks for respiratory protection, but stocks of those were quickly exhausted.

“We had cases of N95s because we use them in compounding,” Guttormsen said, “but we still ran out. You just don’t think about wildfire sweeping through a city of 175,000 or taking down the entire region. We do now.”