When news started circulating last year that scientists had come up with a COVID-19 vaccine, pharmacist Noura Hamoui leaped into action.
“I stepped in, I was like, ‘I’ll do it, I’ll enroll,” Hamoui said, sitting at her desk in a back office of Armitage Pharmacy, near the border of Logan Square and Hermosa on the city’s Northwest Side.
She knew there’d be no way to compete with Walgreens, which secured a deal with the federal government early-on to distribute vaccines broadly, but Hamoui and other small pharmacy owners like her wanted to do their part in getting their communities vaccinated.
“It is a lot for a small pharmacy. We’re trying to accommodate, we’re trying to help the community. We have families, we have kids, and we were afraid every day to get COVID,” she said as she reviewed and printed patient vaccination forms for the day’s schedule.
Armitage Pharmacy sits near an area that has been hit hard by COVID-19. Though it’s technically in Logan Square (which hasn’t been hit as hard as some nearby zip codes), it’s right next door to Hermosa, which is in a zip code that lost more than 200 people to COVID-19. That puts it among zip codes with the highest death rates in the city.
Hamoui said she’s been fielding calls from Spanish-speaking essential workers, manufacturers who want their employees vaccinated, and nearby assisted living facilities that house vulnerable elderly residents.
On a recent Monday, about 20 people got vaccinated — one every 15 minutes for several hours. The first batch was a group of essential workers who work on the line at a candy manufacturer.
Mariana Rodriguez, 33, said she was excited to get the first shot. She’s been worried about contracting the coronavirus and spreading it to her two young kids at home.
“And then I also have my parents who help me watch my kids and they’re older. So I’m doing it for all of them,” she said, moments before getting her shot. “And I do live … 10 minutes from here… This has been one of the hard hit areas, so that’s why I’m also getting it. Because even going to the grocery store, I might be able to get [COVID-19].”
Lead pharmacist Saima Kamran listens in as she prepares a dose for Rodriguez. She said giving people the ability to spend anxiety-free time with their family has been one of the most fulfilling parts of her job.
“I would say that’s huge,” Kamran said. “You’re doing something that’s going to make a difference in the world … It’s an honor to help people during this pandemic, and to make them feel that they’re protected, that they’re immune.”
But though the work has been fulfilling, it has not been cheap or profitable, Hamoui said.
Hamoui said she spent $18,000 on a fridge for the Moderna vaccine and an ultra-cold freezer for the Pfizer vaccine. She hired a full-time pharmacist and technician. She’s not charging consultation fees (like some Chicago clinics).
“On paper, it is a loss to us. But hopefully, in the long term, we gain the community’s trust more and more,” she said.
Hamoui said she’s getting reimbursed for the doses — $16 reimbursement for the first, and $28 reimbursement for the second --- but that doesn’t cover what it’s costing her pharmacy. With regular daily work still to be done, she hired an additional pharmacist to help her administer the vaccine, she said.
“This barely covers your expenses. You know the pharmacist is $45-60 per hour, the technician is $15-20 per hour,” she said.
She added that with the small space she has at her pharmacy, even with more manpower, it’s impossible to imagine creating enough socially-distanced space to administer enough vaccines per day to make a profit.
But profit wasn’t what she was going for, she said.
“At this point we’re just helping the community, trying to swallow that loss,” she said.
Mariah Woelfel is a general assignment reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @MariahWoelfel.