In the waning months of 2020, with a tough flu season looming, Adrian Gulowaty looked around at the Shoppers Drug Mart in Osborne Village, and realized he had an opportunity. For years, the store at the corner of River and Osborne had been one of the brand’s flagship locations: now, Gulowaty saw how it could soon play a big role in the fight against COVID-19.

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In the waning months of 2020, with a tough flu season looming, Adrian Gulowaty looked around at the Shoppers Drug Mart in Osborne Village, and realized he had an opportunity. For years, the store at the corner of River and Osborne had been one of the brand’s flagship locations: now, Gulowaty saw how it could soon play a big role in the fight against COVID-19.

He’d been hoping for a chance like that. The store had been the first 24-hour Shoppers in the city, and the last; in 2019, not long after Gulowaty had become the Osborne location’s pharmacist-owner, all Winnipeg stores had scaled back their round-the-clock operations. Since then, Gulowaty had been thinking about how else to make a splash.

"I wanted to be known for something great again," he says. "I wanted to support the store, support the community and support the Village, so we’re getting foot traffic back into the Village. And I really wanted to focus on vaccines."

<p>JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p> "We don’t always want to be behind the counter dispensing, so this is an opportunity to focus on clinical assessments and educating people about vaccines," said Adrian Gulowaty, pharmacist/owner at Shoppers Drug Mart in Osborne Village.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"We don’t always want to be behind the counter dispensing, so this is an opportunity to focus on clinical assessments and educating people about vaccines," said Adrian Gulowaty, pharmacist/owner at Shoppers Drug Mart in Osborne Village.

Flash forward one year, and that goal has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The Osborne location has been called a "hero" of the vaccine effort, raved about on social media and become one of the top vaccine distributors in Manitoba outside the government-run sites.

Really, it’s all about location. The fact the Osborne location is central helps; so does the building itself. Usually, pharmacies have little extra space to spare, but above Gulowaty’s store sat 5,500-sq. ft. of sunny open room, accessible by elevator and with a separate entrance. It had been built as part of a large expansion in 2013, with plans to rent it out, but stood empty.

It would be the perfect site for a large walk-in vaccine clinic, Gulowaty knew. All he had to do was organize it.

In winter 2020, the Osborne Shoppers opened a large flu shot clinic in the space. The clinic was a success, but more than that, Gulowaty and staff knew they were building towards something even more significant: the COVID-19 vaccines were coming, and they wanted to do everything they could to help get them into arms.

<p>JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS </p>Gulowaty vaccinates Emily Bernardin in the vaccine clinic at his pharmacy. Since the spring of 2021, the Osborne clinic has doled out more than 10,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Gulowaty vaccinates Emily Bernardin in the vaccine clinic at his pharmacy. Since the spring of 2021, the Osborne clinic has doled out more than 10,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses.

Well, they’ve certainly done that. Since the spring of 2021, when pharmacies began to offer Astra Zeneca, the Osborne clinic has doled out more than 10,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses. At peak demand, the clinic can run six vaccination stations at once, and deliver Pfizer, Moderna and flu vaccines to up to 400 people a day. Lately, it’s been averaging about 200.

Good reviews helped fill those spots. In recent months, word-of-mouth about the clinic spread like wildfire on social media, as grateful visitors raved about how quick and easy it was and urged others to visit. Usually, there are, if any at all, only very short lineups; many visitors report walking in, getting their shot and being out the door in under 15 minutes.

"Honestly, the River and Osborne Shoppers is an absolute hero in Winnipeg’s pandemic response," University of Manitoba professor Adele Perry wrote on Twitter last week.

"Shoppers Osborne should be running the Covid taskforce," another user declared. "That’s one smooth operation."

<p>MIKE DEAL / FREE PRESSFILES</p>Word-of-mouth about the clinic spread like wildfire on social media, as grateful visitors raved about how quick and easy it was and urged others to visit.

MIKE DEAL / FREE PRESSFILES

Word-of-mouth about the clinic spread like wildfire on social media, as grateful visitors raved about how quick and easy it was and urged others to visit.

Staffing the clinic, which is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., is something of a community effort. Gulowaty handles most of the organizing; to meet the demand, he assembled a team that includes some of his regular pharmacy staff, University of Manitoba faculty and even retired Shoppers owners who were jumping to pitch in.

That means long hours. With demand for boosters soaring, Gulowaty only took one day — Christmas — during the holidays; unlike the big supersites they don’t have a team of managers to keep it all running, he says. But to him and all the staff, being able to offer counsel and help protect Manitobans makes it worth the effort.

"As pharmacists, we always want to do more," he says. "We don’t always want to be behind the counter dispensing, so this is an opportunity to focus on clinical assessments and educating people about vaccines. It’s almost been like a dream job for some people. They’ve been studying their whole career to get to this point."

One of those vaccinators, Hans Epp, was eager to get started. After 35 years as the pharmacist-owner of a Shoppers in Steinbach, he’d retired from the business in spring 2021; by June, he’d signed up for two shifts a week at the Osborne location. The clinic, Epp says, has been a "diamond in the rough" of Manitoba’s vaccine response.

Pharmacist and retired Shoppers Drug Mart owner Hans Epp (L) and Adrian Gulowaty, pharmacist-owner of the Osborne Village Shoppers location, at the store’s vaccine clinic.

SUPPLIED

Pharmacist and retired Shoppers Drug Mart owner Hans Epp (L) and Adrian Gulowaty, pharmacist-owner of the Osborne Village Shoppers location, at the store’s vaccine clinic.

"It probably is the most rewarding aspect of my career, thus far," says Epp, who will also be working as a vaccinator at the Steinbach supersite. "To be able to provide these vaccinations, I don’t think I’ve ever felt better at the end of the day on a consistent basis, as doing this work."

It’s the people, Epp and Gulowaty agree, that have made it so worthwhile. Gulowaty shares the positive social media comments with clinic staff, and that has made them even more motivated; they’ve also been floored by the expressions of gratitude given to them every day by the steady stream of people who arrive and roll up their sleeves.

"To be able to provide these vaccinations, I don’t think I’ve ever felt better at the end of the day on a consistent basis, as doing this work." – Retired pharmacist Hans Epp who works two shifts a week at the clinic

"If anyone is feeling really down about COVID, they should spend a day with me in this clinic," Epp says. "The emotional uplifting the patients provide us is just amazing. They’re so supportive, they’re so thankful. They understand the risks we take to do this stuff. They’re the ones who really keep us going."

Now, they’re hoping they can do even more. For instance, Epp notes, while he’s marvelled at how well the youngest children who come in for a vaccine have done in the environment, he hasn’t seen as many kids in the five to 11 age bracket as he expected. He wants parents to know that vaccinators are ready and waiting to make the experience go smoothly.

Above all, Epp says, he’s proud of the role his profession has played in protecting Manitobans. It was only in 2014 that the province began to allow pharmacists to give vaccines and other drugs by injection; seven years later, in the midst of a crisis and the largest vaccine campaign in Manitoba history, pharmacists have risen to meet the occasion.

"I don’t think people quite realize all that really has happened in terms of what pharmacy has done," Epp says. "Pharmacists are the most accessible health-care practitioner. We’re always asking for more, and get a little bit, but the opportunity for us to provide the COVID vaccines has definitely made a dramatic impact in terms of the solution for Manitobans."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.