Kansas Profile – Now That’s Rural: Heather Johnson, S&S Drug – Part 2
July 7, 2021
By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University
Have you had your shot? That question was on the minds of millions as vaccinations for COVID-19 were rolled out across the country. Today we’ll learn about a rural Kansas pharmacy which responded to the pandemic in remarkable ways.
Last week we learned about Heather Johnson, chief executive of S&S Drug, a family-owned pharmacy in Beloit. Heather and her husband Jim Johnson have three children in college and high school. Jim, an attorney in Beloit, had grown up at the nearby rural community of Randall, population 65 people. Now, that’s rural.
“We hosted Jim’s high school class reunion at our house. They had 100% attendance,” Heather said. “Of course, it was only seven people,” she said with a smile.
But serious times hit rural America when the pandemic spread in spring 2020 and stay-at-home orders were issued across the nation. “Like any small business, the pandemic had a big impact on us,” Heather said. S&S closed its doors for four months and reopened in June 2020. Even though the retail operation closed, the pharmacy still had to meet essential needs and provide prescriptions through drive-up and delivery.
The business model had to pivot quickly. “It was like building the airplane while trying to fly it,” Heather said.
Rural areas avoided most of the worst impact of the disease in the early stages, but by fall and winter, COVID-19 had reached the smaller communities as well. Many businesses closed again. The disease even reached the Johnson household in Beloit.
“I had it really bad. I was in the hospital for 10 days,” Heather said. Slowly and painfully, Heather worked her way back into recovery.
“I’m a COVID long-hauler,” Heather said. “Recovery is a long, slow process. I had the extreme fatigue and the muscle weakness – even hair loss,” she said. Eventually, she pulled through.
“I came out of this with a true desire to help as many people as possible avoid what I went through,” Heather said. Then prospects for vaccines began to appear on the horizon.
“Our head pharmacist, Chris Mondero, was very proactive,” Heather said. She credits Chris for learning early on about a program which allocated vaccines to community pharmacies across the nation and signing up as one of the early participants in the program.
“Thanks to Chris, we were able to benefit from early access to the vaccines,” Heather said. “When the local health department was getting 100 doses per week, we got 1,000 doses,” she said. S&S Drug moved quickly to work with the local health department to get those doses administered in the community, and then reached out to the region.
“We realized we needed to take it beyond Beloit,” Heather said. Through word-of-mouth and social media, they informed the public about vaccine availability. As additional categories were added to eligibility, S&S Drug adjusted.
Manhattan became a site for outreach. Trase McQueen, a friend at St. Isidore’s church in Manhattan, arranged for vaccinations there. Four hundred kids signed up in 60 minutes. S&S Drug reached out to sorority houses and fraternities. Heather’s brother took vaccines to Kansas City.
“It kept spiraling, it was such a fast pace,” Heather said. “The S&S team was fantastic.” Pharmacy staff had to maintain day-to-day operations back in Beloit while conducting outreach to other communities. “It took every single person to do it,” she said.
Within eight weeks, S&S Drug administered more than 7,000 vaccinations across Kansas. Not only was this a huge contribution to public health, it helped Heather Johnson recover from COVID-19 itself. “My mind was hazy, and I think the vaccination push helped me refocus,” she said.
“We were blessed,” Heather said. “God gave us a mission to share the vaccines, and every member of our team stepped up to help.”
For more information about the pharmacy, go to www.sandsdrug.com.
Have you had your shot? We salute Heather Johnson, Chris Mondero, and the entire team at S&S Drug plus all health care providers everywhere who have made a difference by responding to the pandemic with such remarkable effort. It was definitely a good shot.
Audio and text files of Kansas Profiles are available at http://www.kansasprofile.com. For more information about the Huck Boyd Institute, interested persons can visit http://www.huckboydinstitute.org.