When thinking about the pandemic’s frontline workers, most conjure up images of the white coats in hospitals. But the white coats behind counters at grocery and drug stores have played a significant role in the COVID vaccine effort.

It’s felt relentless for some and even positive steps in the pandemic response have taken a toll.

“I went six months coming home just exhausted every day and feeling like, you know, I worked a 10-hour day or 12-hour day … and feel like I just didn’t do enough,”  said Alex Rothey, a pharmacist at her family-owned Hilltop Pharmacy in Allentown.  “I didn’t call enough people. I didn’t answer enough people.”

Like other frontline workers, pharmacists across the country faced numerous challenges throughout the pandemic, including long hours, business disruptions and the deaths of customers. As the pandemic drags on but communities continue to open up, PublicSource visited two independent pharmacies in the Pittsburgh area to learn about the difficult moments of the past two years, as well as the silver linings, such as strengthened bonds with their communities.

Alex Rothey, a pharmacist at her family-owned Hilltop Pharmacy in Allentown, described the relentless workload during the pandemic. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource) 

Much of the work was positive, like ensuring that residents in need of vaccination could get shots, but as eligibility expanded — first for initial doses, then boosters — the workload could feel unending.

“You know when you’re running a marathon, you want that big marathon finish at the end…” Rothey said. “This felt like a situation where we put six months of really hard, really intense labor and work in and then month six hit and they were just like, just kidding! Start all over. Do it again. Here’s another set of patients. Here’s another set of boosters.”

At Asti’s South Hills Pharmacy in Castle Shannon, president and CEO Chris Antypas described the unique challenges pharmacies faced.

Chris Antypas, photographed in front of a medication sorting machine at Asti’s South Hills Pharmacy. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

“I certainly can say with confidence that I’ve never been under more psychological stress than I was early on in the vaccine launch.” Antypas said. Just getting patients information felt overwhelming, but the independent pharmacy was founded on the belief that people should come first. 

“Our community relied on us heavily to answer questions,” Antypas said. “We met customers in the parking lot. We drove to their home and administered vaccines. We went into nursing homes to go and give people vaccines.” 

Community presence

Despite the recurring challenges, Rothey at the Hilltop Pharmacy insisted that their community, families and friends were the best support they found during the pandemic. “It’s amazing to see how many people will just come out of the woodwork to support you,” she said.

For instance, she said city firefighters would sometimes work a 24-hour shift and then come to help at vaccine clinics at the pharmacy or aid with food pantry donations. “I know a lot of people weren’t that fortunate to be able to have just even one extra set of hands,” Rothey said. 

Alex Rothey training interns at Hilltop Pharmacy. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

As a fixture in the community, staff at the pharmacy had to cope with the death of customers and also saw residents struggling with mental health and addiction issues — particularly with treatment and counseling more difficult to access during the pandemic.

Despite the challenges, Rothey said the pharmacy has worked diligently to support the community that supported them through difficult days.

“Our main goal more than anything has been and will always be to care for our patients and do what’s best, especially in a community that needs it,” Rothey said.

Antypas at Asti’s said the pharmacy, which opened its doors in 2005, has always had a strong relationship with their community and local organizations, such as sponsoring youth baseball. But as the pharmacy had to shift its business model in the early days of the pandemic and served as a key source for lifesaving vaccines, he said that bond has grown. 

Navigating conversations about vaccination were especially difficult. The pharmacy’s staff has tried to meet customers where they are, he said. Rather than berating residents for not getting vaccinated, they focused on providing them with as much information as they can about COVID-19 and the vaccine so that people can make informed choices.

Asti’s South Hills Pharmacy in South Hills. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

“What our focus has been in educating our community has been when you make a medical decision, you should make that medical decision on facts, not on erroneous or misleading information.” Asti’s South Hills Pharmacy hopes they can continue to make a difference in the lives of the people in their community.

At Hilltop in Allentown, Rothey explained that the challenges of the pandemic forced them to work “harder, faster and smarter.” While serving the public was the most important goal, she said, it was crucial to be sure staff weren’t overworked or burned out.

And while the mission hasn’t changed, the pandemic did expand the services residents look for from a pharmacy. 

“Not that I would ever say we were just pharmacists when this all started,” she said. “But once this started, I became a pharmacist, I became an IT expert, I also became a guidance counselor.”

Dalia Maeroff is a PublicSource editorial intern. She can be reached at dalia@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

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Dalia Maeroff is an editorial intern. She is a Pittsburgh native graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2023. She studies psychology, Latin American studies, linguistics, English literature and...