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Filling the Vaccine Void

Adnan Zai

Almost a year has passed since Covid-19 has infiltrated America, leaving many sick people in its wake, as well as taking many lives. The country has been turned upside down. Through nothing short of a heroic move, companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson have quickly engineered vaccines in order to help the crippled country recover and keep Americans safe from harm. In order to continue to move the country forward, millions of people have been vaccinated, starting with first responders and the most vulnerable, and filtering out from there. But even with the best of intentions, there are some areas of the country that are like pharmacy wastelands, and not everyone has reasonable access to vaccinations.

Pharmacy Coverage in America

One thing that the coronavirus has taught us is that access to medical care and pharmacies is not always equitably distributed throughout the country. This was true even before the pandemic, with independent pharmacies often disappearing because of mail order pharmacies and bigger chains like Walmart and CVS.

KHN reported that “between 2003 to 2018, 1,231 independent rural pharmacies closed.” With the advent of superstores and the convenience of stopping at one place for grocery and pharmacy needs, many mom-and-pop pharmacies were forced to close, long before the pandemic. This trend of pharmacy closures is really hitting hard now that Americans in all parts of the country are trying to get a vaccination.

Michael Hogue, president of the American Pharmacists Association, explains, “If pharmacies are closed, especially in places where there’s no other health care provider, then you’ve got essentially a health care desert. You have to be dependent on either a mobile clinic coming in from another area to provide vaccines, or the citizens are going to have to drive farther to get a vaccine.”

This lack of health care in some areas of the country leads to a disparity in treatments for people, depending on their zip code. Although many rural citizens are used to going farther to get basic needs like groceries or haircuts, when it comes to a life and death vaccine, the distance could have dire consequences.

Covid-19, Pharmacies, and Areas that are Lacking

There is a spotlight on the lack of pharmacies at the moment, as President Joe Biden has said that America will have enough vaccines to inoculate every adult by the end of May, and the federal government has partnered with pharmacies inside grocery stores and other free-standing locations to ensure access to all those who need a vaccine.

According to reports, “More than 40,000 stores are expected to take part, and the Biden administration has said that nearly 90% of Americans live within 5 miles of one.” Although this sounds like a robust plan that is destined for success, unfortunately, this seemingly good news does not tell the whole story.

There are definitely gaps in the coverage map, and for the 10% of Americans who do not live within 5 miles of a pharmacy, getting vaccinated is proving more difficult. Obviously rural counties have less access to stores and pharmacies are part of the problem.

“More than 400 rural counties with a combined population of nearly 2.5 million people lack a retail pharmacy that’s included in the partnership. More than 100 of those counties either have no pharmacy or have a pharmacy that historically did not offer services such as flu shots, and possibly lacks the equipment or certified staff to vaccinate customers.” For those who want or need a vaccination, the lack of access keeps vulnerable citizens from easily getting vaccinated.

Minorities also have less access to vaccinations, and the report states that there are “94 counties where Black residents were significantly more likely than white residents to have to go more than 10 miles to reach a potential vaccination site.” The southeastern area of the United States has a higher concentration of these distances, especially Virginia and Texas.

Rural counties between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains have less access to health care and pharmacies, and this can leave thousands of Americans who are already in crisis more vulnerable. Without a majority of citizens getting vaccinated, the country will face a longer road of recovery from the pandemic.

The news is dire for rural areas, even for medical professionals who really should be vaccinated. According to the National Rural Health Association,” 40% of all rural hospitals in Texas still say they have no access to any of the shots.” Experts think part of this disparity stems from the previous administration who left everything about the pandemic up to the states. Now states are calling for more transparency from the government, so they know where they stand.

Just like anything else, hard work is paying off. The rural areas that are working hard to meet the vaccination need are achieving success.

Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures show that rural states such as Maine, Montana, West Virginia and the Dakotas have led the nation in per capita vaccine distributions. This could be because they reported so quickly, but some experts attribute it to the fact that health experts are making a huge effort to vaccinate as many citizens as they can in these areas.

With a concerted effort, the country can move forward with its plan to vaccinate all adults that want to be vaccinated, even those who live in rural areas. This may take the form of pop-up vaccination programs in areas where there are no pharmacies around, or the pointed effort of health care professionals reaching out to at-risk populations to ensure they are vaccinated. In order to get back to live as we knew it before March 2020, these measures need to be put into place to offer vaccination to all.

Adnan Zai

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