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Hogan expands health care staffing flexibilities to hard-pressed pharmacies

A sign is posted outside a CVS pharmacy on Dec. 2, 2021, in Indianapolis. A rush of vaccine-seeking customers and staff shortages are squeezing drugstores around the country. (AP Photo/Tom Murphy)

A sign is posted outside a CVS pharmacy on Dec. 2, 2021, in Indianapolis. A rush of vaccine-seeking customers and staff shortages are squeezing drugstores around the country. (AP Photo/Tom Murphy)

Expanding on a previous executive order, Gov. Larry Hogan has announced additional measures that will give health care facilities and pharmacies even more flexibility to hire unlicensed and student workers.

This is the first time Hogan has included pharmacies in an executive order related to health care staffing. Pharmacies have faced significant demand for COVID-19 testing recently, amid the ongoing surge of the highly transmissible omicron variant, and have served as vaccine distribution sites throughout the past year.

“We continue to take short-term actions to support our health care workforce as it deals with the omicron wave and the influx of unvaccinated patients,” Hogan said in a press release regarding the order.

The executive order allows pharmacists and pharmacy technicians with out-of-state licenses and inactive licenses to work in Maryland.

(These flexibilities were previously afforded to health practitioners working in other health care facilities, such as hospitals, in Hogan’s Jan. 4 executive order.)

Aliyah N. Horton,  executive director of the Maryland Pharmacist’s Association, said her organization began calling for Hogan to issue such an order as far back as late last year. Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians were burnt out from working during the pandemic, she said, and many were falling sick with COVID-19, leaving the remaining staff members overworked.

“If there are not enough people working in the pharmacy, the lines are longer and you may not be able to get your medication as quickly as possible or (get) your questions answered,” Horton said, noting that some pharmacies were forced to shorten their hours due to being understaffed. “So, having that backup is going to be helpful.”

Now, pharmacies will be able to hire recent retirees, out-of-state pharmacy workers and federal pharmacists to help alleviate those struggles.

Federal pharmacists are pharmacists who are employed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who may have out-of-state licenses but live in Maryland due to its proximity to Washington.

“It’s looked well-upon when federal pharmacists take time to do work in the community,” Horton said.

In addition to affording pharmacies more staffing flexibility, the executive order also allows a number of health care students to work in health care settings prior to becoming licensed, including those studying to be licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants, certified medical technicians and respiratory therapists.

Hogan’s Jan. 4 executive order permitted nursing students to work in health care facilities.

The action comes after weeks of Maryland hospitals struggling to keep up with increases in cases and hospitalizations. At the surge’s peak earlier this month, there were about 1.79 times more COVID-19 patients in hospital beds than there had been during the previous peak in hospitalizations last January.

The surge led many local hospitals to begin operating under crisis standards of care, in which a hospital reallocates resources and staff in order to best meet unusually high demand, as early as last December.

Now, both hospitalizations and daily new cases are declining in Maryland. The state peaked at 3,462 hospitalizations on Jan. 11, and is now down to 2,330, while its highest seven-day case rate per 100,000 residents has declined from 210 on Jan. 9 to only 76 today.

“The Maryland Hospital Association appreciates Gov. Hogan’s action to alleviate Maryland’s health care workforce challenges,” said Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association, in an email. “Hospitals remain under extreme duress. COVID hospitalizations may be on the decline, but we’re not out of the woods. Our current COVID inpatient census remains higher than the previous all-time high reached one year ago and our available beds are much lower than last year at this same time into the surge.”

Nationwide, COVID-19 hospitalizations are still increasing, according to the New York Times. Maryland is tied with the District of Columbia for the greatest decline in hospitalizations over the past two weeks, with both decreasing by 17%.