Rhode Island Pharmacist Earns Leadership Role in Pandemic
From the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rhode Island pharmacist Christine Berard-Collins has helped showcase the profession as a go-to resource in a time of national crisis.
“I think this has been a year for pharmacy to really shine, to show who we truly are. We’re leaders, we’re experts in logistics, experts in organizing and planning, in pulling together people with different backgrounds and disciplines and driving consensus,” said Berard-Collins, who is vice president and chief pharmacy officer for Lifespan.
Among other responsibilities, Berard-Collins heads the COVID-19 vaccination program for the integrated multihospital system. She described the work as a logical extension of what the pharmacy team has been contributing to the pandemic response since its first days.
Rhode Island, the smallest state, has the nation’s fourth-highest cumulative COVID-19 case rate, with more than 12,700 confirmed or probable cases per 100,000 population since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
Berard-Collins said the pharmacy team’s initial contribution to the pandemic response was to minimize the effects of drug shortages and ensure the availability of critical medications for patients hospitalized with COVID-19 or other illnesses.
When remdesivir first became available for the treatment of COVID-19, Lifespan’s pharmacists developed clinical guidelines for using the antiviral and worked closely with the state health department to help manage and distribute allotments of the drug.
By fall, monoclonal antibody therapy had become a critical component of COVID-19 treatment, and the pharmacy team developed clinical guidelines and dispensing protocols for these therapies.
Lifespan also needed a way to administer IV monoclonal therapies to actively infected COVID-19 patients without jeopardizing the health of cancer patients and others requiring infusion therapy.
“We had to stand up new infusion suites,” Berard-Collins explained. “I had the honor and privilege of taking the lead on that for our health system.”
She said the project involved finding a physical location for the new infusion suites, collaborating with infection control, information technology, and facilities management colleagues on site design and infrastructure needs, and working with nursing on staffing and finance on budgeting and equipment purchases.
“You need infusion chairs, you need pumps and poles and all of those things,” Berard-Collins said. “So in the fall, we were working on that and getting in monoclonal antibodies so we could start those infusions as the drugs became available.”
As this project was underway, Lifespan was also strategizing scenarios to store and administer the COVID-19 vaccines that were expected to be available in the months ahead.
“Over the summer, we knew enough to order our ultra-cold freezers,” Berard-Collins said. “But it’s really hard to do a whole lot of planning in advance when you don’t really know the time frame.”
By that time, the pharmacy team was so deeply involved in all things COVID-19 that Berard-Collins was tasked with running the organization’s vaccination campaign.
“I and my leadership team volunteered to take on the entire effort,” Berard-Collins said. “This has really elevated not just the personal reputation of the pharmacy leadership; ... it’s also an acknowledgment of what pharmacy can do, and what we can learn to do, and how we really have this incredible skill set to take on challenging roles and complex projects.”
Throughout the pandemic, Berard-Collins has worked closely with colleagues in the state health department. That collaborative relationship remained critical as the health system vaccinated its own staff and then expanded its reach to local healthcare providers and, later, the general public.
Berard-Collins said Lifespan has routinely initiated vaccination campaigns for target populations, with the goal of stepping aside when the state is able to take over the task.
“We served as a critical bridge for the state,” she said, adding that the organization has been administering about 3,000 doses per week since mid-December.
According to data from Rhode Island Department of Health, nearly 860,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered in the state through April 27.
Collins noted that many of Lifespan’s community pharmacists have long been certified to vaccinate patients. But when the pandemic hit, many pharmacy technicians and hospital-based pharmacists also volunteered to become certified so they could assist with the vaccination rollout.
“Everybody said, ‘I want to help,’” she said. “I’ve been with Lifespan for 34 years, and I’ve never seen such commitment to a goal.”
For more information and free tools regarding the pandemic, including the Assessment of Evidence for COVID-19-Related Treatments and patient-level COVID-19 vaccine monographs in English and Spanish., visit ASHP’s COVID-19 Resource Center and the COVID-19 Community at ASHP Connect.