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Rural Americans in pharmacy deserts hurting for COVID vaccines

The Colorado Sun


As the Biden administration accelerates a plan to use pharmacies to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, significant areas of the country lack brick-and-mortar pharmacies capable of administering the protective shots.


A recent analysis by the Rural Policy Research Institute found that 111 rural counties, mostly between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, have no pharmacy that can give the vaccines. That could leave thousands of vulnerable Americans struggling to find vaccines, which in turn threatens to prolong the pandemic in many hard-hit rural regions.


And in those areas without pharmacies, rural residents may have to drive long distances to get shots, and do so twice for two-dose vaccines. An analysis by the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy and the West Health Policy Center found that 89% of Americans live within 5 miles of a pharmacy. But more than 1.6 million people must travel more than 20 miles to the nearest pharmacy, which can mean facing difficult weather and road conditions in remote areas.


“If pharmacies are closed, especially in places where there’s no other health care provider, then you’ve got essentially a health care desert,” said Michael Hogue, president of the American Pharmacists Association. “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.”


So far, with a limited quantity of doses and strict limitations on who is eligible, that hasn’t been a problem. But as vaccination opens up to the general public and supplies of the vaccines increase, local health departments may be overwhelmed with demand and may need to offload the task of vaccinating local residents to other health care providers.


“It’s probably not playing out yet because we’re not getting enough supply,” said Keith Mueller, director of the Rural Policy Research Institute’s Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis. “That means we have some time for those local health departments to figure this out: Who in my radius, if you will, has the capacity to administer vaccines?”


From 2003 to 2018, 1,231 independent rural pharmacies closed, Mueller’s team found, leaving some 630 rural communities with no retail drugstore. The changing economics in the pharmacy industry did them in, a combination of national pharmacy chains expanding and consolidating, big-box stores and supermarkets opening their own competing pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers eating into small-pharmacy profits. Mail-order options siphoned off business.


And you can’t get vaccines in the mail.


In many towns, those pharmacies represented the last bastion of health care in their communities. Now more than ever, residents are feeling the void. Continue Reading

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