Dr. Ben Ross ’08 exemplifies the servanthood of the pharmacy profession. Like many pharmacists throughout the country, Ben and his teams at the various south Georgia independent community pharmacies that he owns or co-owns responded to the COVID-19 health crisis with pop-up testing sites, vaccine dispensing, and public health support.
Ben owns Forest Heights Pharmacy in Statesboro and Ross Drug in Sylvania, and he is a partner in Coastal Drug in Midway, Crawford & Breazeale Drug in Lincolnton, Clark Drug in Waynesboro, Georgetown Drug Company in Savannah, and (as of 3/1/22) Thompson Drug Company in Thompson.
So, a few months ago, it seemed natural for Ben to answer the call from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) to submit an application to administer Molnupiravir and Paxlovid, oral antiviral treatments for COVID-19. DPH required that initial applicants be federal partners, which are WalMart, Walgreens, and members of the Good Neighbor Group (comprised of small independent pharmacies). While thousands of pharmacies across the state applied to dispense the antivirals, only 40 were initially selected due to the limited supply. A Good Neighbor Group member, Ben and many other PharmDawg alumni and preceptors were among those who made the short list.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency use authorization for the oral antivirals in late 2021. Early studies indicate these treatments may reduce severe outcomes from COVID-19, including hospitalization or death. The antivirals are recommended for treatment of individuals who are at high risk for the virus or have underlying medical conditions. Both Molnupiravir and Paxlovid require a prescription and should be started as soon as possible after diagnosis of COVID-19 and within five days of symptom onset.
Dr. Heather Staton ’10 is an owner of Medi-Thrift Pharmacy in LaFayette and Cannon Drugs in Chickamauga. Like Ben, Heather and her pharmacies are a part of the Good Neighbor Group and were selected to dispense the oral antivirals. When asked about initial results of the new medication, Heather remarked, “Patients are tolerating both medications. I have had high risk patients – who I would have thought would end up in the hospital – receive the medication and not be hospitalized. However, I can’t say for certain if this is due to vaccine status, the medication, or the variant itself.”
Ben added, “These drugs are so new. I will say our patients who take the drugs seem to be experiencing very little side effects and are getting better more quickly and with less COVID symptoms than those who don’t take the antivirals. Overall, our patients are very pleased with the benefits they are experiencing.”
Heather and Ben said they dispense the two antivirals every day. They both agreed that Paxlovid, a Pfizer product, seems to be prescribed more frequently by providers; however, supplies have been more limited compared to its counterpart Molnupiravir, a Merck product.
“We are seeing the antivirals prescribed to all age groups,” said Ben. “However, citizens who have limited access to health care and providers are not receiving prescriptions as readily for these medications when they actually may need it.”
Ben added, “Oral antivirals are just another weapon in our belt in the fight against COVID. Now that we have an oral pill, it will be much easier to treat this virus. This is a huge step in the right direction.”
When asked about the role pharmacists have played during the pandemic, Heather said emphatically, “As pharmacists, we continually show our capability to serve on the frontline of healthcare. I often say that pharmacists, especially when Omicron emerged, are who patients have consulted first. From home tests, to point-of-care testing, to vaccination administration, to over-the-counter remedies for mild cases, and now these antivirals, we are in the front, not the back, of the healthcare service line. We are in medically underserved communities; in fact, at some point, local physician offices were not seeing sick patients. So, patients turned to us for help. And we were there for them.”
Ben echoed Heather’s remarks. “The silver lining of this pandemic is that it has been great for our profession. We have been able to show our communities that we can be a first-line resource for even the most serious health care concerns. Our patients have witnessed us giving vaccines, providing counseling, and offering medical support. They are realizing that we do more than just count pills.”
Several PharmDawg alumni and preceptors from Walmart and Walgreens were on the initial list of dispensers of the oral antivirals. In addition to Ben and Heather, Good Neighbor Group PharmDawgs who dispensed the drugs included Dr. Jenna Evans at Eastman Drugs and Dr. Matthew Tanner at Morris Drug Company.