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OKOTOKIAN: Unsung Heroes

Stepping up to serve the community

“That’s what we do.”

Four simple words summed up pharmacist Jeff Ertl’s experience during a global pandemic, when COVID-19 called upon ordinary people to become heroes as they served their communities.

From doling out medications and answering the questions of nervous clients to ringing up groceries or collecting online orders from the shelves, to working with the community’s sick, the frontline workers of Okotoks stepped up to help out their fellow residents during a difficult time.

Ertl, who is the licensee and principal clinical pharmacist at Pharmasave on Milligan Drive, said there was some adapting to do but otherwise he considered his contribution to be part of the job. It began at the onset of the pandemic in March, when clinics, stores and restaurants, schools and other facilities began to close.

People were overwhelmed with suddenly working and learning from home, and he said it was important to stay as open as possible to assist the public with their concerns.

“As pharmacists I feel we’re more accessible, a lot of the time we’re the first line people go to with questions related to their health, or related to COVID,” said Ertl. “We were fielding a lot of phone calls about what people should do about medications, about whether they could still get in to see their doctors, people asking, ‘What’s this COVID, what do I have to do, what are the symptoms?’

“We just wanted to be there, be open, and be like, ‘We’ll help you get through this – it’s okay, we’ll get through this together.”

At first there was a quick transition and learning curve as the pharmacy adapted to regulations and continued serving customers who were growing increasingly nervous, he said.

Drug shortages due to issues with transportation and importation hit, forcing pharmacies across Alberta to limit their dispensing to one month at a time to accommodate the decreased supply. The same went for personal protective equipment.

“Everyone was looking for hand sanitizer and masks and gloves,” said Ertl.

On top of that, many clinics were closed and people had a difficult time contacting their doctors before clinics arranged for telephone or limited in-person visits under Alberta Health Services (AHS) guidelines.

“We had to extend prescriptions for people or prescribe for patients because they couldn’t get in to see their doctor,” said Ertl. “More clinics are open now, more people are actually getting into their doctors for follow-up and bringing in that medication, those prescriptions for their medications renewals.”

Despite being overwhelmed with questions and changes to procedures, supply shortages and patients in need, Ertl never hesitated to come into work early every day, and complete his work after the store hours had ended.

Through it all, the primary concern was for safety, he said.

“We wanted to make sure the staff here maintained their safety and we wanted to make sure the customers were safe as well,” said Ertl.

In the beginning, patients were encouraged to use Pharmasave’s e-care app to drop-off prescriptions remotely by submitting photos along with their information, then have the medication delivered or use the curbside pick-up option.

Inside the store, modifications were made such as installing plastic dividers and screens to separate staff from customers in the front pick-up and counselling areas, said Ertl. There has also been less face-to-face consultation or medical reviews, but he will meet with patients over the phone to discuss their needs.

Now that things have opened up, more people are visiting the pharmacy in-person and he said there haven’t been any health and safety concerns.

While there were changes to procedures, Ertl said the job itself and what it stands for didn’t change.

“I always say a pharmacy is not a job,” he said. “We’re here for the community and the public when they need us.

“I didn’t even really look at it for me as a change, because I’m here doing the same thing I was doing, we just had different things we had to put into place to ensure safety and the health of the staff, the patients, the customers, the community.”

Shelby Haakenson, five-year cashier supervisor at Okotoks Sobeys, was proud to serve the community through the pandemic. Like Ertl, she said coming to work every day was never a concern, and, other than extra measures put in place, it seemed ordinary.

“Honestly, with the precautions we took it pretty much felt normal still,” said Haakenson.

Those precautions included increasing cleaning protocols and using tougher cleansers more often, as well as installing Plexiglass barriers between cashiers and customers and the check-out.

It helped to calm the nerves of employees in the store.

“There were some people who were a little bit nervous at first, but with all the stuff we had set up they started to feel a lot better – it calmed them down,” said Haakenson. “Myself, I took the steps I needed to and I felt good coming to work.”

Customers have expressed the same feeling of safety coming into Sobeys, she said, which helps boost the morale of the people working there. From positive comments about how the guidelines are being followed and the efforts made to distance people with one-way signage to notes of kindness, every little bit helps.

“One thing a lot of us really appreciated was notes we have along our windows from customers saying how much they appreciate everything we’ve done for them, and that’s a really good thing for all of us,” said Haakenson. “We come in and see it there every day, and it means a lot.”

Seeing the gratitude of customers helps justify the perceivable risks employees took coming into the store every day despite increasing anxiety about COVID-19, she said.

Though Haakenson never hesitated to be on the floor for her shift, she said there’s a sense of pride that comes with knowing you’re providing an essential service for others during a difficult time.

“It feels really good to know that we’re here for people,” she said. “Obviously everyone needs food, so it feels so good to be there and be part of what makes it better for everybody, maybe to even relieve some of the stress.”

The store’s remote order and delivery program, as well as curbside pick-up service, grew exponentially while people were isolating or nervous about being in public, and while it added more work to the store’s plate, it was well worth it to know they were helping the best they could, she said.

At the onset there were longer hours and some of the work was a little tiring, but she said everyone pitched in to get the job done and make the store safe for staff and customers alike, and that’s what counted, no matter how exhausting the days could be.

“It all made the community feel good coming to see us or order through us and made all of us feel good because we were helping everybody who needed it,” said Haakenson.

After a few weeks, new protocols were in place and it became a business-as-usual situation, with the changes made to the store and procedures feeling more normal. There were still some struggles with shortages on certain products – like toilet paper and pasta during March and April – but the store worked hard to manage its inventory and communicate with its customers.

Haakenson said for the most part, people were understanding, and that helped store employees handle hard situations.

“We kept on top of it the best we could,” she said. “For me, it’s been really good overall.”

Like the efforts made at Sobeys, it’s taken a team to create a positive atmosphere while handling patients at urgent care.

Michelle Strom, site manager for Okotoks Health and Wellness Centre (OHWC), Urgent Care and the Calgary Rural Diabetic Program, said it’s taken a village to ensure the facility maintained its services despite the uncertainty that struck in March.

“It was just a sense of the unknown,” said Strom. “What was going to happen and how was our outcome going to look with COVID?

“Looking at the world, you would have a perception of how severe COVID can get, so at the very beginning everyone was nervous. I would say at the very beginning just not knowing what was going to happen was unsettling.”

She said the OHWC team did a great job of coming together to follow AHS protocols and protect themselves and the patients coming into the building.

It took some getting used to, but with new regulations and procedures in place everyone got back into the groove, she said. It was more than just Okotoks Urgent Care – managers and staff from all departments and programs stepped up to make it happen.

“Everyone’s areas changed and very quickly,” said Strom. “People really pulled together in the initial phase and they still are to this day helping our site to safe.”

People from all departments were redeployed at the onset to help with new procedures, such as screening visitors at the front door and providing each person with a fresh, disposable AHS mask and hand sanitizer.

Now that other outpatient services are back up and running in addition to the urgent care wing, she said pre-screening is happening prior to people entering the building as well.

She said the OHWC has taken the approach of being the tortoise rather than the hare – taking it slow and steady as the site reopened to ensure all necessary precautions were taken and following AHS guidelines to a tee. That includes wearing proper PPE and hand-washing efficiently, not rushing through the steps.

There have been some difficult adjustments for many of the frontline workers, especially in urgent care, when it comes to wearing masks – which are required at all times except when eating in the staff room, she said.

“One thing the staff said, which just shows their compassion, is that people can’t see our faces,” said Strom. “They wish they could see the smile behind the mask, especially children.

“They know the importance of masking, it definitely needs to be done, but they miss that contact and if a child is scared, that reassurance of a smile from a nurse.”

Aside from missing the connection facial expressions can offer, she said the urgent care team feels comfortable with the processes that have been put in place and has adjusted to the new policies. Nobody has ever balked at coming into work to see patients during the pandemic.

Everyone has continued to work hard for the good of the community and their colleagues, she said.

“They’re doing very well with the changes in terms of consistency and what we need to do to support our team and keep the patients and families safe,” said Strom. “People are working hard and working outside their norms to make a success at the site and to protect the patients, the families, the visitors who enter the building.”

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