Pharmacy workers are coming down with COVID-19. But they can’t afford to stop working.

As prescriptions surge, Walgreens and CVS employees say they need more protective gear, cleaning supplies and sick pay, according to an exclusive report by ProPublica.

“Someone will come into work sick and there’s nothing anyone can do about it,” a pharmacist says.

Pharmacy workers are on the front lines of the nation’s response to the pandemic, providing medications and advice to an ever-growing number of Americans. Yet like other businesses deemed essential in the coronavirus outbreak, Walgreens and CVS have been accused by employees of failing to protect their health or provide adequate sick pay. The nation’s two biggest retail pharmacy chains are among at least a dozen large companies, including groceries and delivery services, whose employees have circulated petitions seeking stronger safety measures.

25 Walgreens and CVS employees told ProPublica that they’re coping with more customers, prescriptions and payments than ever before without a corresponding increase in staffing or safety measures.

Without sufficient safeguards, pharmacies could become vectors for spreading the coronavirus within communities, according to Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the CUNY School of Public Health. “This is not a hospital setting per se, but it is a busy place where sick people may be going at a time when transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is high,” he said.

Both Walgreens and CVS said they are following all government guidelines. “Walgreens champions the health and well-being of every community in America, playing a critical role in providing patients and customers access to the care, products and services they need,” said Molly Sheehan, a Walgreens spokeswoman. She added, “We have instituted extensive safety measures for our employees and in our stores.”

CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis said: “Pharmacies are a critical resource for communities across the country, and we’ll continue to be here for customers and patients in these trying times. We’re constantly working to increase availability of supplies and update protocols to ensure our stores are safe for employees and customers alike.”

As hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients, pharmacies have become the first stop for people feeling unwell. Pharmacists said that once the CDC and others advised Americans to stock up on medication, they were flooded with double, sometimes triple, as many prescriptions to fill. In March, employees said, they were coming face to face with hundreds more customers. There was more talking, more sneezing and more coughing.

Almost 120,000 people have signed two petitions urging pharmacies to rely on drive through service wherever possible. One petition directed at CVS asks it to close the front of the store, where goods are sold over the counter, and to fill prescriptions through curbside pickup, drive-thru and home delivery. These recommendations have been echoed by the CDC.

Both companies say they have encouraged drive-thru and waived home delivery charges in an effort to slow down foot traffic. As of last week, however, Walgreens continued to email customers coupons and text push notifications — “Stop in, We’re nearby!” — enticing them to come into the store. CVS has extended the time for customers to redeem its coupons. In an April 1 letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the American Pharmacists Association noted that “implementation is highly variable for social distancing mechanisms such as home delivery, curbside or drive-through service or implementing barrier windows or directional signage to minimize contact with and among patients.”

Walgreens and CVS said they have instituted enhanced cleaning measures and limited store hours. In late March, a weekly cleaning service arrived at many Walgreens locations, while CVS has shipped a box of Lysol canisters to stores. CVS and Walgreens are hiring thousands of new employees and have recently supplied stores with tape, so employees can mark the appropriate distances between customers in line.

CVS said it requires cleaning of hard surfaces every hour, and of commonly handled items more frequently. But workers at numerous pharmacies said it was difficult to meet those expectations, especially without extra time, staff or resources. As a result, they said, their cleaning has been haphazard — limited to countertops and whatever materials each store has on hand. “We try to set timers, but it’s lucky if we do it twice a day,” a CVS technician in Montana said.

Both Walgreens and CVS have promised to install plexiglass barriers at counters, a measure recommended by the American Pharmacists Association. OSHA similarly recommends that workplaces with a medium exposure risk, a category that includes high-volume retail settings, supply employees with face masks and plastic sneeze guards. But more than half of the pharmacists we spoke with — and more than 30 members of a Facebook group for pharmacists — said that their stores, with locations ranging from Washington to Florida, still don’t have these barriers. Others whose stores did get them said that the barriers provided insufficient coverage. “That’s not much protection,” one member posted on Facebook, next to a picture of a narrow standalone plane. Some members of the group reported that their plexiglass had already broken. In an email to ProPublica, CVS said that the barriers are due to arrive at all stores by the end of this week, and Walgreens said that it is installing them as quickly as possible.

After Walmart announced a cash bonus policy, CVS and Walgreens said they would pay one-time bonuses for certain employees in late April. Both companies also said they have relaxed attendance rules and instituted paid leave policies for employees sick with the coronavirus. CVS said that it would offer two weeks of paid leave to any worker who tests positive or is told to quarantine by a doctor. Walgreens does not provide workers with quarantine pay unless they test positive. With a shortage of tests, the policy means that many Walgreens employees with the coronavirus may have little choice but to keep working, putting colleagues and the people who they interact with at risk, employees said.

A staff member will also be paid if “our clinical team determines a team member is a high risk and states the team member should quarantine without a positive test,” said a Walgreens spokeswoman. When notified of a confirmed COVID-19 case in a store, Walgreens notifies public health authorities, identifies and contacts individuals who may be at risk, and cleans and disinfects the location, which may include temporarily closing the store, she said.

In step with the CDC’s evolving protocols, Walgreens announced on April 3 that it would provide “face covers” to its workers and CVS told employees this week that face masks would be mandatory, with full-time employees receiving two masks per week.

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