MPA | Pharmacy News

Tobin’s pharmacy and department store had already stocked its shelves with Easter and Mother’s Day items last spring, and the staff had just placed the Christmas orders. The shop in Oconomowoc, Wisc., had been operating on a razor’s edge as retail sales moved online and mail-order pharmacies siphoned off its patients. It was losing money on one out of four pill bottles filled, so the front of the store, where it sold clothing, cosmetics, and jewelry, had been compensating for pharmacy losses for years.

“And then COVID hit,” said Dave Schultz, who co-owned the store with his brother. “And that was the final straw.”

The COVID-19 pandemic sank many businesses in 2020, particularly those relying on in-person sales to stay afloat. For pharmacies—especially independent pharmacies—the pandemic lockdowns exacerbated long-standing economic pressures. Many small owner-operated pharmacies adapted quickly, delivering their traditional amenities in safer ways or capitalizing on new services created by the pandemic, such as COVID testing and vaccinations. But others, like Tobin’s, became casualties of the pandemic, closing their doors for good.

It’s too early to quantify just how many pharmacies succumbed to COVID and assess how patients will be affected. The total number of pharmacies has declined less than 1% over the past five years, as pharmacy chains get larger while independent community pharmacies—often the last place left to fill a prescription in some small towns—go under. The Rural Policy Research Institute found that 1,231 independently owned rural pharmacies, about 16%, closed for good from 2003 to 2018, well before the pandemic pinch. And according to the Drug Channels Institute, after five years of declines, the number of urban and rural independent pharmacies dipped below 20,000 for the first time in 2020.

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