Local businesses pitch in to provide hand sanitizer

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Conley's staff from left: Alex Doyle, Michael Penniman, Maria Hebbel, Marlene Doyle and Andrew Pszenny

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IPSWICH — Alex Doyle has been run ragged since the COVID-19 crisis hit.

The owner of Conley’s Drug Store has been working the phones, sourcing merchandise suddenly made scarce by the coronavirus scare.

When he found out his order of surgical masks had arrived in JFK Airport in New York on Saturday evening, he was on the road at 4 a.m. to bring them back to Ipswich.

Doyle has also been finding surgical gloves, Tylenol, and even toilet paper for the store in the Ipswich Shopping Center. But as a compounding pharmacy, Conley’s is now able to make hand sanitizer and sell it over the counter.

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That was another change brought about by the pandemic. Under emergency rules, Gov. Charlie Baker granted pharmacies the ability to make and sell sanitizer on March 12.

Doyle said the active ingredient is alcohol — very strong alcohol. “You can make this at home, but make sure you have at least 91% alcohol,” he said.

Not far away from Conley’s, Privateer Rum on Mitchell Road is making and donating alcohol to facilities in need.

“We really want to help the frontline people. This is pretty high-stakes stuff,” said owner Andrew Cabot.

Cabot said he delivers around 10 gallons at a time to different medical facilities, where staff there can make sanitizer.

He said he has no expertise or interest in the sanitizer business, noting that there are different standards and recipes from the WHO, the CDC, and the FDA. “I’ve learned a lot this last week,” he laughed.

While he is aware Privateer is donating alcohol, Doyle said he can still find pharmacy-grade alcohol. However, he added that he would be willing to donate time and materials to work with Privateer’s product if there is a local need.

Doyle said he asked people who were making sanitizer at home what their recipes were and got disappointing answers.

Nine out of 10 used isopropyl, or rubbing, alcohol with a gel. But if they followed a two-to-one ratio, they were watering down the mix to 46%; the final product has to be at least 60% alcohol.

“You’ve wasted your aloe, you’ve wasted your alcohol, and you’re not protected,” Doyle said.

He also said liquor store spirits, usually around 40% alcohol, would be no use, noting that Tito’s Vodka issued a statement warning its product would be ineffective.

Doyle suggested that if people have strong enough alcohol, they can use that to douse their hands and then use moisturizer afterwards.

But it is still not as effective as hand-washing and social distancing, he said.

While his pharmacist Andrew Pszenny is working to keep the sanitizer flowing, Doyle is struggling to keep the shelves stocked.

As a small operation, Conley’s can move quickly, he said. His main challenge at this point is time. “I’ve got to triage. Everything else I’ve let pile up.”

Prices have also jumped, he noted. Surgical masks that once cost $7 for 50 are now $75, he said.

And although staff were told they could stay home if they were nervous about mixing with the public, Doyle said no one has taken that option.

To help social distancing, he introduced a one-way system in the store and marked out six-foot gaps on the floor. Meanwhile, sales staff — with masks and gloves — work behind temporary perspex screens.

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