Shelter from the storm: Reliable first responders, pharmacies provide critical disaster relief


When hurricanes, tornadoes, foods and other disasters strike, where do people turn for help? Retail pharmacies have become a critical community resource in times of great stress, offering food, water, emergency items, medical supplies and healthcare services when most other local businesses are still struggling to reopen or rebuild.

Time after time, those drug store, supermarket and discount-store pharmacies have provided vital relief during times of natural disaster. Setting up in temporary digs like trailers or buses — or bringing supplies and needed pharmaceuticals directly to a local emergency distribution center — community pharmacies have proven themselves as reliable first responders during times of emergency.

Retail pharmacy chains have been diligent not only in providing an immediate response when natural disasters and public health emergencies occur, but also in continued efforts to maintain public welfare in the aftermath of an emergency event. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, for instance, Rite Aid worked quickly with local community organizations to provide severely impacted areas with water and emergency supplies. And CVS Health partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the New York City Office of the Mayor and the N.Y.C. Department of Health and Hygiene in order to waive co-payment deductibles and other financial burdens associated with prescription medicines for low-income patients in the New York City communities hit heavily by the storm.

When a series of tornados and storms ravaged Oklahoma and Texas in 2013, San Antonio-based supermarket and pharmacy chain H-E-B helped the local fire department set up a command center in the parking lot of its Cleburne location in North Texas to provide crucial aid to storm victims. Walmart sent associates into affected areas of Oklahoma from Arkansas, Texas, Missouri and Kansas to help staff its stores for the relief efforts.

For Walmart, that effort was nothing new. The giant mass merchandiser and pharmacy operator established an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the early 2000s, which staffs an in-house meteorologist who monitors weather patterns. The center also includes a team of associates trained to respond to disaster situations. Using this Emergency Operations Center, Walmart is able to assess specific needs and jump into immediate action when an emergency situation occurs.

Point-of-care facilities within retail pharmacies, such as CVS Health’s Minute-Clinics or Walgreens Boots Alliance’s Healthcare Clinics, are staffed by nurse practitioners who can provide critically needed healthcare services during times of crisis, such as administering tetanus shots or dressing wounds. When tornados slammed Moore, Okla., in May 2013, two CVS stores in the town remained open 24 hours a day. Pharmacists and physician’s assistants working at its MinuteClinic lo cation were able to provide much-needed medical care and advice to those impacted by the storm.

Pharmacy chains are also working with local relief agencies in joint efforts that will improve the access to healthcare services during times of public emergency. Rx Response is a charitable disaster response organization created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2006 that helps provide coordinated support from an alliance of local pharmacies, government organizations and supply chain partners.

Rx Response provides crucial information that can benefit those affected by natural disasters and crisis situations. The program also gives emergency responders critical updates on the challenges facing supply chain partners relating to electricity, fuel and transportation issues.

Rx Open is a program designed by Rx Response that helps victims and evacuees find open pharmacies during an emergency situation so they can continue to fill needed prescriptions. The Rx Open tool was utilized during Hurricane Isaac in 2012 and also deployed in 11 states during Superstorm Sandy’s landfall in 2013. Walgreens was the first major retail chain to provide status reports on its pharmacies directly to Rx Response.

Walmart has also begun partnering with Rx Response and participating in its Rx Open program, a company spokesperson confirmed.

By responding rapidly to natural and man-made emergencies, America’s pharmacy providers are filling a critical need, said Tim Belka, director of global security services at Walgreens. “Medications, especially for those with chronic conditions, can be one of the most important healthcare needs that are difficult to meet in the aftermath of a natural disaster,” Belka said. “By giving people a place to go for information and critical pharmacy or healthcare services during a time of crisis, Walgreens and Rx Response can help with disaster relief efforts for impacted communities. As a community health and daily living destination, our stores can also serve as a convenient and centralized aid station during crisis situations.”

Rx Response also allows for patients who may use a different pharmacy to fill out an “Rx On The Run” card, which helps people in severe public health emergencies to refill prescriptions at any available pharmacy. Using this tool, pharmacies can work together to create a continuum-of-care for people trapped in a natural disaster who need specific medicines vital to their well-being.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds