The impact of COVID-19 on Pharmacy Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

COVID-19 has taught us many things, among them that our healthcare supply chain is poorly designed and flimsy. Just a few weeks into the pandemic and our supply chain for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been completely disrupted. PPE is now in short supply, and I suspect that we will run out of PPE in just a few weeks if things continue on their current trajectory.

Are we using more PPE because of COVID-19? Of course! But we are unable to spin up production because a vast majority of the products we need are not made in the United States and the world is in lock down. An industry that is literally designed to provide care to others and save lives has no supply chain redundancy, no failover strategy for shortages, and no geographical diversity for equipment and supplies.

Any pharmacy that compounds sterile medications – intravenous antibiotics, for example – is required to wear a lot of PPE. Guidelines have lead to staff being required to wear a clean, low-lint gown, bouffant (head cover), mask, shoe covers, and sterile gloves when entering the buffer area of a pharmacy cleanroom; I also have to wear a beard cover, but most do not.

When leaving the area, a vast majority of the aforementioned PPE gets tossed, i.e. wasted. Up until about a week ago, much of the PPE worn by pharmacy personnel could not be reused. Now, because of the pandemic, regulatory agencies are lifting these restrictions. It’s an interesting shift in thinking.

In general – in theory? – the use of PPE during sterile compounding is designed to decrease risk of introducing bioburden into process. I suppose that makes sense. Unfortunately, the risk has never been quantified to any appreciable manner. There are no before and after statistics to determine whether or not strict adherence to PPE guidelines has done anything to improve sterile compounding safety, or lesson the risk of contamination. One thing is does, however, is generate a ton of waste and increase the cost of sterile compounding significantly .(1)

Current garbing practices are basically at the whim of groups like the United States Pharmacopeia (USP). The process by which USP creates these guidelines is not at all transparent. We have no idea what thought and/or research goes into their recommendations. Unfortunately, USP guidelines are frequently – almost universally – adopted in whole or part by other regulatory agencies like Boards of Pharmacy, Departments of Public Health, The Joint Commission (TJC), and so on. Few ever question the decisions because everyone is too busy trying to follow the rules and take care of patients to fight it.(2)

Over the past couple of weeks, organizations and regulatory agencies have been pulling back on the requirements for sterile compounding PPE, due in no small part to the disruption in the supply chain caused by COVID-19. It’s an evolving situation.

As we move through this crisis, I recommend the following:

  • Review your current PPE practices. Some folks are doing way more than is required. While noble on the surface, doing so is adding to the shortage and not necessarily benefiting anyone.  A prime example is pharmacies that use full PPE in anterooms.
  • Re-use PPE when allowed. See most recent USP recommendations here.
  • Do not place re-used PPE in plastic bags for safekeeping. I saw this recommendation somewhere and it makes no sense to me. People perspire in PPE, and zipping it up in a bag is akin to a makeshift incubator.
  • Sign up for USP, TJC, and local Board of Pharmacy email communications. Things are changing rapidly, at least they have been here in California. We’ve had to make several adjustments over the past 7-10 days, and I expect we’ll have to make even more in the coming weeks. It’s going to get weird.
  • Use common sense. Folks, pharmacists are highly trained, specialized professionals. Now is not the time to be averse to making judgement calls. It’s why we spent all those years in school and get paid the big bucks. Use your head. Be smart but be flexible.


  1. It is not uncommon for large hospital pharmacies with busy cleanrooms to spend more than $10K per month on disposable PPE. Think about that the next time a hospital administrator complains about spending $3K on a “non-formulary” course of therapy
  2. Recently, a group successfully blocked the publication of new USP <797> guidelines. One of the reasons the group went after USP was due to lack of transparency in their process and failure to provide information when comments and requests were ignored.

Building a sterile compounding space in California – Regulatory Hurdles

For almost a year, I’ve been working as a ‘Pharmacy Project Manager’ on a large healthcare system project to bring all their pharmacy sterile compounding spaces — a.k.a. Cleanrooms, SCA’s, C-SCA’s, etc. — into compliance with USP General Chapters <797> and <800>. Some areas have been remodeled while others have simply been scrapped in favor of a completely new space.

The time on this project has been one of the highlights of my 20-plus year career. I’ve learned so much in such a short period. You think you know something until you have to start doing it day in and day out. It’s only then that you realize you know nothing. Here I am a year later and my knowledge base on sterile compounding has increased tenfold. It’s been a great experience.

One of the things that I learned early on in this position is that no pharmacy project in California is easy. There are several state and local agencies that have to be involved. And as one might expect, when government agencies get involved, the paperwork, time, money spent, and frustration can escalate quickly.

The process for remodeling or building a new sterile compounding area, at least in California, involves at least three agencies: the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD), the California State Board of Pharmacy (BoP), and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

In a nutshell:

Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD): Part of the OSHPD mantra is to “ensure hospital buildings are safe”. They’re basically the organization that looks at your architectural and engineering plans and says yea or nay. My experience has mostly been nay on first glance followed by weeks of back and forth until all parties are satisfied. It’s an interesting process, to say the least. It’s also time-consuming.

OSHPD is a real stickler when it comes to anchoring equipment in place in case of an earthquake — noting that California has only had a few major quakes in the past few hundred years. A majority of our quakes are small and cause no damage. But don’t tell that to OSHPD. Their anchoring requirements are, shall we say robust; read that as overkill. The buildings around the anchored equipment will come crashing down long before the equipment will budge an inch. Just sayin’.

OSHPD is the first organization to sign off on a project. Once the plans are approved, a building permit may be issued and construction may begin. Once construction is complete, OSHPD inspects the area, and if everything meets code, they sign off and provide a Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) for the space.

I honestly don’t know a whole lot about OSHPD. The process is mostly handled by the architects, the project engineers, and the construction folks. I get informed with progress and sometimes provide snippets of information, but for me, the overall process is magic behind the curtains.

California State Board of Pharmacy (BoP): The BoP is responsible for ensuring that every pharmacy, or part of a pharmacy, conforms to the requirements set forth by the California Lawbook for Pharmacy. The BoP process starts with submission of an application, license sterile compounding or satellite pharmacy. The BoP reviews the document and either requests changes, which happens a lot, or approves the application and assigns an analyst. The analyst assigns an inspector to the project and a new set of back and forth begins. The inspector often asks for a lot of paperwork before their inspection: copy of sterile compounding PnP, testing and certification results for the room and hood, culture results, “QA” and competency results for staff, cleaning logs, etc. Once the inspector is satisfied with the paperwork — noting that each inspector is different and may ask for different things — they schedule a visit.

Assuming the BoP inspection goes smoothly, which is a hit and miss, the inspector will clear the site for licensing. Unfortunately, the inspector doesn’t actually license the space. All they do is notify the analyst assigned to your case that the space has been cleared for licensing. The actual license isn’t official until a new license number is assigned and posted to the BoP website. This can take anywhere from 2-6 weeks after the inspection. The BoP says “2 weeks” but I’ve found that to be inaccurate in almost all cases so far. The fastest I’ve had approval has been two weeks. The longest has been more than six weeks. If you haven’t heard from the BoP in two weeks, I recommend sending them a nudge, “hey, remember us?”.  It seems to help.

I recommend submitting your application to the BoP at least a couple of months before construction is complete.

California Department of Public Health (CDPH): If one were to assume that CDPH is a single organization, one would be only partly correct. For pharmacy projects, the organization is actually broken into multiple groups, each with its own set of requirements and approval processes for every single pharmacy sterile compounding project in California.

There’s the CDPH Central Application Unit (CAU), which works with each facility to ensure all necessary paperwork is in order: an HS Form 200 application form, along with a bunch of other paperwork like the OSHPD C of O and Form STD 850 Fire Safety Certificate. It’s quite a process. However, I’ve found that the CDPH CAU is easy to work with. They’re a friendly bunch that appears to want to help.

And there’s the CDPH Pharmaceutical Consultant Unit (PCU). As far as I can tell, the existence of the PCU in an official capacity is new. At least it feels new. The PCU requires its own laundry list of paperwork. Seriously, it’s a huge list of stuff.  The list includes the C of O for the space, even though the CAU requires it before they notify the PCU inspector; all sterile compounding PnP; temperature, pressure, and cleaning logs; a copy of the pharmacy plans, including HVAC system layout — even though this has already been approved by the engineers at OSHPD; test results for the room and hoods; employee competencies and QA testing; high-resolution photos of the space — even though CDPH PCU has no way to receive files this size and can’t use a file sharing service like Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive from Microsoft.

Given my experience with the CDPH PCU, it’s difficult for me to understand their existence. They do almost exactly the same thing as the BoP. See above. It’s a duplication of efforts, to say the least. And in my humble opinion, the PCU doesn’t appear to provide any benefit to the overall health of the project. It doesn’t really matter as going through the PCU for approval of the space is required, so that’s what we do. Fortunately, the PCU inspectors are typically pretty easy to work with. They demand a lot but typically work with you to get it done.

The entire CDPH process is a bit convoluted. Once the CAU has everything they need for your new pharmacy sterile compounding area, i.e. they have all the paperwork, they notify the PCU that you’re clear for inspection. The PCU inspector contacts the facility via email or phone and works with them to schedule a field inspection. The inspector comes out, inspects the space, and if it’s good to go — almost never in my experience — they clear the space for use. However, the PCU clearance doesn’t mean you can use the space. The PCU inspector must first notify the local CDPH office with a “recommendation” to approve the space for use. The local office reviews the PCU inspectors report and if they agree with the inspector’s recommendation, which they always do, they notify the inspector of the approval. The inspector then notifies the facility that they’re good to go. Simple, right? Riiiight.

I recommend submitting your CAU application 4-6 months in advance of your construction completion date. I recommend contacting the PCU 2-3 months out. It’s better to be on their radar.

Final Thoughts

Building a new sterile compounding space is expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive. Even with the best planning, the regulatory processes in California are going to make you want to pull your hair out and scream. But there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve found that being informed about the process is the best weapon in your arsenal, and can only help you in the long run. Get educated on the process. Reach out to all the agencies involved and find out what you have to do well in advance of your project. And don’t be afraid to reach out to the inspectors — BoP and CDPH PCU — because they’re there to help you.

Compounding Today: state board of pharmacy concerns with USP <800>

Each Friday the CompoundingToday Newsletter faithfully appears in my inbox. The newsletter features commentary by Lloyd V. Allen, Jr., Ph.D., RPh, Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Compounding. Dr. Allen is a legend in the pharmacy compounding world for both sterile and non-sterile products. He was someone that I looked up to during my early years as a pharmacist; still do, as a matter of fact.

Long before USP <795> and <797> existed, he was preaching the gospel of proper compounding technique and the need for specialized training. Truly a visionary man ahead of his time. I hope to meet him in person someday.

So it should come as no surprise that I take seriously every thought and opinion he has. In last week’s Compounding Newsletter, Allen tackled an interesting topic with some thoughtful commentary.

From the newsletter:

Numerous state boards of pharmacy have concerns about United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <800> Hazardous Drugs-Handling in Healthcare Settings.

– The official chapter goes beyond the walls of the pharmacy and into healthcare settings, including physician offices, clinics, hospitals, treatment centers, etc. where state boards of pharmacy don’t generally have authority for enforcement.

– The requirements of <800> are very strict and extremely costly; many smaller pharmacies will no longer be able to serve their patients who depend upon compounded medications so they will simply cease compounding patient-specific medications, including some hospitals.

– There are some aspects of <800> that should be the burden of manufacturers and distributors, not pharmacies. As an example, no package should be delivered to a pharmacy contaminated with hazardous drug (HD) contents on the package surfaces that exposes pharmacy personnel upon opening. This is the responsibility of the manufacturer and distributor…

– Many of the requirements of <800> are based upon “opinion” and not necessarily upon science as demonstrated by documented, prospective studies.

It’s interesting to note that USP <800> extends into all areas where HD’s may be used, including physician offices. Where will that oversight come from? Will pharmacies be held accountable?

Dr. Allen has always been an advocate for “the little guy” and been cognizant of the balance between practical regulation and overbearing regulation. This is clear in his assessment of many areas within USP <800>. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, I believe that his commitment to pharmacy practice and patient care deserve our attention. As he states, it is possible that the new regulation will simply be too much for some, resulting in the closure of compounding facilities. The greater concern, at least for me, is what impact the new requirements will have on hospital pharmacies where budgets drive change. A shift in budgetary requirements will likely mean that important projects will be postponed or canceled in favor of meeting USP <800>. The untoward consequences could be felt for years to come.(2)

Dr. Allen’s zinger about the lack of science is understandable and shared by many, but I don’t believe that prospective studies are always necessary to begin a process. For example, would you really want a 10-year pilot study showing that healthcare workers in the U.S. exposed to HDs are 10 times more likely to die of cancer than those that don’t before implementing these guidelines?(1) No, of course not. As I’ve said many times before, some fields – clean room procedure and pharmacy technology, for example – cannot be studied and scrutinized in the same manner as therapeutics. We simply can’t wait 5-10 years to change operational practices. With that said, USP <800> probably goes too far too fast in certain aspects of the regulation. Only time will tell whether the new guidelines will have the same impact as USP <797> did back when they were introduced.

Dr. Allen goes on to state: “As state boards of pharmacy have options other than accepting USP <800> in its entirety… The purpose of this document is to simply provide a resource from which state boards of pharmacy can “pick and choose” items to include for their respective state.” While this may be true, it is one area where I disagree with Allen. Giving each state the ability to “pick and choose” how to implement and use USP <800> makes things incredibly difficult. California, for example, has made a complete mess out of their new regulations. Other states will do the same, creating chaos. In Allen’s scenario, moving ten feet across a state boundary could mean following a completely different set of rules. How does that make sense? I recommend developing USP <800> to a point that everyone can live with and use it. Period.

I encourage you to read through the most recent issue of the CompoundingToday Newsletter. I also recommend that you “click subscribe” as well. The information is good and thought-provoking.


  • This is a fictitious example.
  • As my friend and colleague, Ray Vrabel likes to say, the clean room is “clean, but deadly”, referring to the fact that we spend all our money on regulation and virtually nothing on technology to improve safety.

Three concepts that create a lot of confusion: stability, beyond-use date, expiration

The differences between stability, beyond-use date (BUD), and expiration for compounded sterile preparations (CSPs) causes a lot of confusion. I’m not even certain that I fully understand their roles in day to day pharmacy operations. With that said, I think the key is for everyone to at least understand and agree that the BUD of a CSP is not the same as the expiration date.

Here’s how I understand it:

Stability is based on the chemical stability of the solute in solution, i.e. ingredients alone or in combination. This is what the Handbook on Injectable Drugs is all about, i.e. loss of drug potency/activity in solution.

Expiration date is defined by the FDA and identified by the product manufacturer.  Basically, it’s the shelf-life of the drug when properly stored. The expiration date no longer applies once the manufacture’s container is opened and the drug product is transferred to another container for dispensing or repackaging. Pharmacy uses “expiration date” loosely as we are not manufacturers. Most often I see pharmacies use expiration date in place of stability, i.e. the drug is good in solution for “this long”.

Beyond-use date (BUD) is assigned by the pharmacy for a CSP and is an arbitrary date/time found in USP <797> and adopted by many boards of pharmacy. BUD is based on sterility, stability. The BUD identifies the time by which a preparation – once mixed – must be used, i.e. “hung”. Once the CSP is hung on a patient, the BUD goes out the window and no longer applies. USP <797> does not address what to do with a CSP once it is hung on a patient. So something can have a BUD of 12-Hours, but be stable much longer. Pharmacies can extend BUDs, but only after independent sterility testing performed according to USP <71>, or in some cases when appropriate literature sources are used.

In summary, the BUD is not the expiration date, nor the stability of a preparation. Nurses must hang a CSP before the BUD is reached. The CSP can continue to hang on the patient until the “Expiration Date” is reached.

I would love to hear how facilities are dealing with these three concepts. Does your facility use a BUD and expiration on CSP labels?

Will the revised USP Chapter 797 include recommendations for automation and technology?

Whether or not future editions of USP General Chapter <797> will include recommendations for IV room automation and technology is a great question, and one that I’ve been pondering for quite some time. I’m torn as to whether or not I think adding such recommendations to a USP General Chapter is a good idea.

On one hand, I believe that pharmacy is over-regulated as it is. The amount of time spent by pharmacy personnel adhering to and documenting compliance to regulations currently in place is staggering. New regulations are frequently added to the process, but rarely, if ever taken away.

On the other hand, pharmacies refuse to utilize game-changing automation and technology even when they know it has the potential to improve operations, improve patient safety, and decrease cost. I’ve met many pharmacy directors and operations managers over the years that operate in a state of willful blindness when it comes to adoption of technology in the pharmacy.

While I don’t support adding, even more, regulatory requirements to pharmacy practice, I’m in favor of increased use of pharmacy automation and technology, especially in the IV room. It’s a conundrum.

With that said, it may become a moot point as it is possible that recommendations addressing the use of iv room automation and technology will find their way into the next revision of USP General Chapter <797> Pharmaceutical Compounding—Sterile Preparations. Recent discussions with people close to the situation lead me to believe it could happen.

Should that occur, it would likely be a good thing for pharmacy practice in the long run as it would drive adoption of CSP preparation technology. Even if the Expert Compounding Committee were to recommend adoption and not mandate it, i.e. “should” versus “shall”, the industry would surely take note. Recommendations that show up in <797> have a way of trickling down into other regulatory agencies as well as into the minds of inspectors and pharmacy directors. For example, the 2015 California Lawbook for Pharmacy(1) states that “The board shall review any formal revision to General Chapter 797 of the United States Pharmacopeia and The National Formulary (USP–NF), relating to the compounding of sterile preparations, not later than 90 days after the revision becomes official, to determine whether amendments are necessary”. Regardless of whether or not the board takes action, they are sure to take notice.

It’s too early to say whether or not the revisions to Chapter <797> will include recommendations for CSP preparation technology, but I suspect we won’t have to wait long to find out. Chapter <797> is currently up for public comment until January 31, 2016. Based on recent changes to USP General Chapter <800>, I suspect revisions to Chapter <797> will become official in a similar timeframe so that the chapters can be properly harmonized. Only time will tell.

Something worth thinking about.


(1) Article 7.5, Section 4127(c)