Editor’s Note: The following profile is a preview of a special report series by the Merced County Times on the impact of COVID-19 on the Merced County population.
Rafael Velasquez is a local pharmacist known in the community for outstanding customer service in the classic sense.
If you walked into his family-owned pharmacy — known simply as Merced Drug — you would either see Velasquez behind the counter, filling a multitude of orders with his wife Socorro by his side, or he would be in front of the counter, speaking one-on-one with a customer, explaining aspects of a medication, and likely doing so in Spanish.
“That was the goal,” Velasquez says about opening his business 22 years ago. “When you work for someone else, you sometimes have so little time to interact with customers. You are on the clock, and everything is about production. But when you work for yourself, you can decide to spend a little more time with them. That’s why I decided to open up my business. I wanted to be able to talk to people and make sure they understand their medications. And since I am bilingual, that just helped even more, especially in this community where more than 50 percent of the residents are Hispanic.”
Velasquez was born in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco. His father worked in the Bracero program, and was able to bring his family to this region in 1966 when Velasquez was just 5 years old. They settled in the small town of Hughson, just off Santa Fe Avenue, past Denair.
While in high school, the young Velasquez worked as a clerk and delivery person at the local pharmacy in town, and that helped put him on a career path after he graduated in 1979. He spent two busy years at Modesto Junior College, then he studied at Stanislaus State, and then he was accepted into the School of Pharmacy at UC San Francisco. When he earned his degree in 1986, Velasquez was one of only two Hispanic students in his graduating class. He knew very well that there was a big need for minorities in the health care profession.
Velasquez returned to this area and worked 11 years for a chain pharmacy before opening up Merced Drug at 35 E.16th Street in 1998.
Over the years, his entire family has helped out at the store in some way or another. His three boys — Christopher, Brandon and Jordan — all work there in some capacity. Not to mention a sister-in-law and a niece. And of course, they have developed lifelong relationships with their extended family — the community of Merced.
“You get to know them over time,” Velasquez says. “You see their children grow up. And when the parents get older, their needs change, and they will call me for advice. They ask about copays, or if I know of a good specialist in the area, or if a medical group is taking on new patients, or if I know a doctor who speaks Spanish. And that’s very rewarding to be able to provide the right connections.”
In January of 2020, it was business as usual until Velasquez started to hear more and more about the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon he started seeing new trends in normal supply orders for things like protective gloves and medical masks.
“A doctor in the area was going to the Philippines, and she asked me for an N95 mask,” Velasquez recalls. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, I can get those. No problem.’ I got her a box of 20. Very reasonably priced. So later, she came back and said, ‘I would like to send some to my family.’ But by the then, the word was out. By March it was tough to get them.”
With the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, Velasquez grew more concerned day after day.
“For me, I had a lot of questions. There were a lot of unknowns. You start wondering. Do we have the right treatments? We were all learning in the medical field. We were getting prescriptions for certain antibiotics. And then you would see something else in the news that they were trying to use. And we were getting a lot of calls from customers, and even emails and social media posts from family members as far away as Mexico about medications and equipment. We were explaining to people that some things could be bought over the counter, but others needed a prescription from a doctor. Some were panicking. They wanted to be prepared at home in case the hospitals were full and they couldn’t go.”
The welcoming ambiance of Merced Drug was changing too. The front doors were locked for a time and only a certain amount of people were allowed in the store at any given time. Those inside had to wear masks and keep at least six feet apart from one another. A plexiglass shield went up around the front register.
“I started seeing some of my customers end up having the virus,” Velasquez recalls. “The young individuals did very well. You know, they just had some symptoms, but they recovered. But what I noticed was my customers who had underlying conditions — whether it be diabetes or a heart condition. Those were the ones who ended up in the hospital longer. Or maybe they didn’t make it out of the hospital. And we would not find out right away, of course. Most of the time, we learn about a customer after they have been released and we receive a prescription order. So around July, we started hearing from family members about customers who had died. And it was very tough. Anyone who goes to the hospital, the chances are these new therapies are going to work. But nothing is a given. So we lost customers who had been semi-healthy, and some who were not very healthy.”
Velasquez also started realizing that local pharmacists were among the medical professionals on the front lines who were telling customers the importance of keeping appointments with doctors and to not be afraid to contact their doctor.
“That was really tough, especially for about three months, to convince someone that these doctors are there for them,” Velasquez recalls. “The fear was mainly among parents with young children, women who were pregnant, and the elderly. Many of them were Spanish speakers who would come in and ask, ‘What do I do?’”
The pharmacist could easily see how the virus was becoming deadly for disadvantaged populations in the area.
“You know we have people who maybe cannot read. They don’t use the Internet, and they are afraid to ask questions. And we would talk to them and try to reassure them. But it’s tough. Some were not using masks, or not taking precautions, and they lost a grandma or grandpa due to covid, and due to family members coming over and having a party.”
Eventually, news of approved vaccines were a welcome sign for Velasquez and his Merced Drug business. However, the frustration continued with the rollout in the county, and the low amount of initial doses for the population. And then the calls started coming in from desperate seniors.
“When are we going to get the vaccines? How are they going to be distributed? Who is going to be the first in line? … There were things on the state website, but by the time things get to this county, there was a little bit of ambiguity. We would try to direct people to the Health Department because they are really the experts. But I still don’t know how long it’s gong to take for everybody who wants a vaccine to actually get one.”
Velasquez hopes state health networks will improve the way they coordinate with local networks in order to reach seniors and other populations in need through a variety of public information strategies, and not just through the internet and social media.
“You know, when someone is running for a top political office, they know how to get those campaign fliers in the mailboxes of seniors. They know how to find them.”
There were other negative aspects of the pandemic that people don’t always consider, according to Velasquez.
“I’ve seen an increase in depression — you know, the medications. I have seen an increase among people who weren’t on anti-depressants before. We have all gone through financial pressure. I have asked people, in a very gentle way, ‘Has something changed over the past three to four months besides the covid situation that has brought you to where you are?’ We sometimes refer people to a specialist or to their doctor to discuss problems. I say there’s help. You have to understand people go through ups and downs in life and sometimes they just need someone to talk to.”
On a more positive note, the community pharmacist says he has witnessed relatively few cases of flu infection this year in comparison to the coronavirus.
“If anything, it has helped people stay safe and healthy over the winter,” Velasquez says. “What I think is even though this pandemic may be controlled as we all get vaccinated, we still should use some of the things we have learned — the hand washing, and maybe wearing a mask when you go where there is a lot of people. I think those things will become more like a habit. There are so many things we require [in society]. We require shoes when you go into a business. Why not a mask?