Charles Ouellette and John Hebert had a different idea of what their joint business venture would look like as they planned for the April 1, 2020, grand opening of Bangor Drug on Broadway.
Months earlier, in September 2019, the pair had bought the part of Northern Light Health’s pharmacy business that supplies prescription drugs to assisted living facilities and group homes across Maine. They wanted to augment that business with an independently owned retail pharmacy serving the general public.
Then, COVID-19 arrived in Maine in March 2020. The pair had to cancel Bangor Drug’s April 1 grand opening, and the business’ mission became inextricably linked to the coronavirus crisis, which has taken a disproportionate toll on the long-term care facilities and group homes to which Bangor Drug supplies prescription drugs.
Today, the pharmacists from the St. John Valley — Ouellette runs St. John Valley Pharmacy in Fort Kent and Hebert runs Hebert Rexall Pharmacy in Van Buren — are playing a key role in vaccinating long-term care facility residents and staff members against COVID-19.
“Especially because of the pandemic, we find that most of our operations are long-term care right now,” Ouellette said.
From top left (clockwise): Bangor Drug Manager Amber Morin shows the Moderna coronavirus vaccine packaging on Jan. 12; Bangor Drug Manager Amber Morin shows the special packaging the Moderna coronavirus vaccine is shipped in; Bangor Drug Manager Amber Morin talks about the Moderna coronavirus vaccine on Jan. 12. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN
At its retail location at 711 Broadway, Bangor Drug offers many of the services customers expect at a 21st-century pharmacy: health and beauty products, beer and wine and a place to fill their prescriptions. The operation, with 30 employees, stands out as a newly opened independent pharmacy in an industry that’s become increasingly consolidated into a handful of national chains.
The pandemic, however, has hurt the retail side of the operation, although the drive-through prescription business has been strong, Ouellette said.
“We would love to have more business there,” he said. “But, you know, things have been difficult.”
The company coordinates with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention as it administers vaccines at a growing number of facilities — Ouellette estimated it to be 25 to 50 locations. They range from larger nursing homes to smaller group homes. Some locations can contain as few as two to three residents.
Bangor Drug is fighting for a piece of the pie held mainly by pharmacy chains including Walgreens and CVS, which Ouellette said especially benefit through the use of pharmacy benefit managers that serve as intermediaries between health insurers and pharmacies.
“Unfortunately, our competitors are also very involved with the insurance companies that will directly pay us,” Ouellette said. “So there can be preferences for them to go to their particular store.”
Walgreens and CVS are also working with the U.S. CDC to administer vaccines at long-term care facilities across the country — an arrangement that Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah criticized this week as rolling out too slowly. On Monday, Shah ordered Walgreens to send nearly 2,000 COVID-19 vaccines it had no imminent plans to use to two Lewiston hospitals that needed to more quickly inoculate health care providers.
Before Hebert and Ouellette began collaborating in 2018, Hebert had begun providing drugs to long-term care facilities in the Bangor area and specializing in compliance packaging, packing pills in a way that ensures patients know when and how many to take each day.
The pair’s pre-existing relationships with long-term care facilities provided for a smooth transition to the task of vaccinating their thousands of residents and staff members against the coronavirus.
Bangor Drug has also taken on an educational role as it administers vaccinations. Ouellette and his staff have fought vaccine “hesitancy” among some potential recipients by creating webinars focused on the vaccines’ safety.
Pharmacists have a role to play in fighting misinformation, as well addressing questions recipients have about side effects, Ouellette said.
While nationwide polling has shown that a significant portion of the population is skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines, Ouellette said he has seen a different picture on the ground.
“I often see the same people who refused any vaccine in the past rolling their sleeves up,” he said. “It’s very encouraging.”