Experience pays off when disaster strikes

Lessons learned from 9/11, Katrina.

Seven years ago, Rich Palombo spent a month in New Orleans helping those affected by Hurricane Katrina with their medication needs. This week, he’s dealing with similar situations, but not as a pharmacist. He’s also the mayor of Upper Township, NJ, where the eye of superstorm Sandy passed on Monday evening.

“From tip to tip, New Jersey experienced severe damage from the storm,” Palombo, Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs with Express Scripts, told pharmacist.com. “People here who lived here since [the most severe previous storm in] 1962 say this flooding was worse.”

In New York, Craig Burridge, Executive Director of the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York (PSSNY), credited procedures developed after 9/11 with enabling the Empire State to respond quickly to the storm’s impact in the New York City area. “We’re fortunate the board of pharmacy is located 150 miles away,” Burridge said. “We had some wind and a little rain [here in Albany]. But we still can’t reach the inspectors who live in the city because of power outages and cell-phone disruptions.”

Emergency guidelines for New York relax regulations by permitting provision of 3-day supplies of non–controlled substance prescriptions that were originally filled by inaccessible pharmacies. When common databases enable pharmacists to verify prescriptions, full refills of both controlled and non–controlled prescription drugs can be provided. Transfers of stock among pharmacies are permitted on an emergency basis without wholesale licenses.

New Jersey is taking similar steps, but with a longer time horizon. Because of widespread power and water outages throughout the state, Anthony Rubinaccio of the New Jersey Board of Pharmacy said 30-day refills will be permitted on an emergency basis. “Physicians may not be available to authorize refills,” he noted. “These regulations will increase pharmacists’ ability to exercise their professional judgment in the aftermath of this hurricane.”

Final regulations for New Jersey will be available soon on the board’s website.

At least two New York pharmacies were destroyed by the storm. One, located in the Far Rockaway area of Queens, was a block away from the fire that destroyed more than 100 buildings. But the pharmacy was flooded, something its insurance won’t cover. Had it been inland by a block, the owners would not be facing total loss today.

“It’s heart wrenching to see colleagues in that position,” Burridge said.

The other pharmacy is in Coney Island, an area that may not have power restored for weeks. When pharmacies are destroyed or otherwise inoperable, Burridge advised to first recover computer files if possible and get them onto a laptop or other portable device. The next step is contacting wholesalers for emergency supplies and boards of pharmacy for permission to operate trailers or RVs. A generator is needed, along with fuel for running it indefinitely.

PSSNY is also receiving reports from Long Island of nursing homes that have been unable to obtain medications from usual suppliers. Area community pharmacies in the hard-hit area are doing their best to meet the medication needs of residents.

For Palombo, setting up an office of emergency management and command post are becoming old hat. “One of the first things I did when I heard the storm was coming was to have all city vehicles filled with fuel,” he said, noting that finding gasoline is now a huge issue across New Jersey. “Because of that, we’re able to help the people who stayed in their homes during the storm.”

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