"We're going to have a fatal error somewhere," said a pharmacy technician in New York, "because we're doing too many things at once.”
From the moment Marilyn Jerominski walks into her pharmacy every morning, her time is in demand. As pharmacy manager of a busy 24-hour Walgreens in Palm Desert, California, she is responsible for the safety and accuracy of the thousands of prescriptions the store dispenses every week.
"There's so much stress," Jerominski said. "You're not only running to the drive-thru but to the front, to the vaccination station to give a vaccination, then to the phone. ... It's almost impossible for any human to keep that momentum day in and out."
It wasn't always that way. When she began working as a pharmacist 13 years ago, it was a very different environment, Jerominski said. There were more staff members and more time to counsel patients about their medications. These days, she is exhausted and often overwhelmed, worried about making a mistake when someone's health is on the line. She is far from alone.
Jerominski is one of an estimated 155,000 pharmacists working at chain drugstores who, over the past decade, have found themselves pushed to do more with less. They're working faster, filling more orders and juggling a wider range of tasks with fewer staff members at a pace that many say is unsustainable and jeopardizes patient safety. Now Covid-19 vaccinations are raising new concerns about what will happen if they aren't given enough additional support for yet another responsibility.
NBC News spoke to 31 retail pharmacists and pharmacy technicians in 15 states. From 12-hour shifts so busy they don't have time to go to the bathroom or eat to crying in their cars every day after work or lying awake at night worrying about mistakes they might have made while rushing, they described an industry of health care professionals at the breaking point.
"The expectations they're having and the resources they're giving us just aren't matching up," said a CVS pharmacy technician in New York state. "We're going to have a fatal error somewhere because we're doing too many things at once."
Most pharmacists spoke anonymously out of fear of losing their jobs. Declining profit margins for pharmacies, corporate consolidation and an influx of new pharmacy school graduates in the past decade have led to stagnant or falling wages and fewer employment options, according to pharmacists, experts and recent studies.
The pressure and understaffing issues aren't new, as The New York Times reported last year. But they've worsened during the pandemic, pharmacists said, with new duties like Covid-19 testing, deep cleaning and now vaccinations stretching them even further.
"Pharmacists are being asked to do additional tasks and aren't necessarily receiving the assistance that they need from their employer," said Al Carter, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, a nonprofit that represents state pharmacy regulators. "That's a huge concern for pharmacists' well-being but also, more importantly, for patient safety."
The more overworked they are, the more likely they are to make errors, he said. Pharmacy errors can range from smaller mistakes, like miscounting the number of pills in a bottle, to potentially deadly ones, like missing a dangerous drug interaction. Working conditions and workplace pressures have led to "growing concerns from many state boards of pharmacy" about prescription errors, Carter said.
Walgreens and CVS, the country's largest pharmacy chains, were early government partners in the vaccine rollout. In statements to NBC News, they said that they are grateful for the work their pharmacy staffs have done during the pandemic and that they are hiring thousands of additional staff members to ensure that pharmacies have the support and resources to administer Covid-19 vaccine shots and provide the best care for patients. They and the trade group representing all chain drugstores also said technology improvements have freed pharmacists from many routine tasks in recent years, allowing them to focus on the safety and health of patients — their top priority.
CVS said the majority of stores giving Covid-19 vaccinations will do so through a dedicated team of pharmacists working only on vaccinations. In stores that don't, the company will provide additional staff support and limit the numbers of appointments.
Pharmacies have already begun to vaccinate around the country, but many pharmacists said they're worried about how much additional staffing they'll get to give vaccinations.
Jerominski's pharmacy began vaccinating last month. The vaccinations are going well, she said, but other work has been piling up as she struggles to find time to do it all.
"Right now, it's just so crazy," she said during a shift break on her third day vaccinating. "Like, it's 1 o'clock, and I've done 14 Covid vaccines this morning, in between filling prescriptions. ... It's wonderful that we're doing this, and this is our duty. This is what we're supposed to be doing. But we need more help."
Timed to the Minute
A pharmacist's job is far more than putting pills in bottles. Experts in drugs and medication management, they work everywhere from hospitals to cancer treatment centers and drugstores. They are among the best-educated health care professionals — they earn four-year clinical doctorates, which include rotations and often postgraduate residencies — and make median salaries of $128,000 a year. They are also some of the most trusted and accessible health care professionals in the country, according to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.
The person who actually hands you your filled prescription at the counter may be a technician, not a pharmacist. Technicians are support staffers who run the cash register; fill, count and bag prescriptions; and unload inventory. They're entry-level employees who typically get on-the-job training or attend certificate programs and are paid a median $16 an hour.
Medication management services for customers can save billions in annual health care expenses, pharmacy groups estimate. Pharmacists said providing that advice is why many got into the business, yet they now have less opportunity to use those skills.