The U.S. is undergoing a massive vaccination strategy to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been without hiccups. Individuals have been accused of cutting the lines. White Americans are being vaccinated at rates two to three times higher than Black Americans. The latest hurdle is getting vaccines to rural populations. Although population in rural areas is falling, it still accounted for around 14 percent of the total U.S. population in 2018. Traveling to vaccination sites, such as local pharmacies or stadiums in cities, can be nearly impossible — with some individuals forced to travel upwards of 30 miles. But in order for the pandemic to end, people need vaccines. This means that pharmacies need to find solutions to improve the rural vaccination program. While we await a wider vaccination strategy from the government, here are some ways to improve access, awareness and distribution in rural areas.
Mobile Vaccination Sites
The most common method for reaching vulnerable populations — both for pharmacies and health authorities — is with mobile vaccines sites. Nurses and pharmacy technicians have been leveraging vans, trucks and trailers to mobilize their health units, parking them in rural communities in hopes of easing access to vaccinations. Although effective — residents in Marion County, Minnesota took positively to the clinic despite snow creating setbacks — there are obvious challenges to mobile clinics. For one, staffing requirements are huge, with most mobile clinics requiring multiple people to drive and administer vaccines. It’s also logistically challenging. However, it seems as though bringing vaccines to citizens is far easier and more effective than hoping citizens will drive long distances to receive the vaccine.
As we’ve also seen with telehealth, technological solutions aren’t always the most effective options in rural communities due to the lack of infrastructure to support them. Scheduling appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine have already been causing issues — and these issues are likely only to be exacerbated in rural areas as they navigate the many different digital scheduling systems. Pharmacies and the wider healthcare community need to work together to implement a universal scheduling platform that’s low maintenance and able to work in rural communities where they may not have infrastructure to support complicated digital solutions. These systems need to be supported with more traditional methods, such as email or phone scheduling, to ensure equal access to all.
Marion County’s mobile vaccine clinic credits its success to communication and outreach, which are lessons that should be applied to any vaccine distribution plan. In an increasingly connected world, it’s easier than ever to ensure that community members are aware of the vaccine schedules that impact them, including any efforts specifically targeted to rural communities. Pharmacies can promote vaccine schedules and mobile clinics on local radio stations or in newspapers. Social media has already played a huge part in informing the public about the safety of the vaccines, and it can again be leveraged to promote vaccine clinics for rural populations. Because these clinics require long travel and long days for healthcare workers, it’s important that those impacted are aware of these opportunities to make them worthwhile for the staff.
Communication also plays a huge part in scheduling the doses of two of the approved vaccines, as both require two doses at pre-determined intervals. Now that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved to be stored at higher temperatures, it will be easier to distribute both approved vaccines to the general public. However, this means that pharmacies and health authorities need to track who is receiving which vaccine and when to schedule their follow-up appointments. The method that they select to get vaccines to these rural areas will need to be repeated for the second dose, which means that they will need to ensure constant communication with the communities so that they’re aware of their appointment and of the vaccine that they’re receiving. Calls, emails and texts will need to be leveraged for education and for scheduling.
There are many issues with the current strategy that will need to be addressed if the U.S. is hoping to complete vaccinations in a timely manner — which is especially important as we pass the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths. Reaching rural and vulnerable populations in places that they can easily access, improving scheduling, and ramping up communication are all necessary. No matter what strategies are implemented, pharmacies, health authorities and governments will need to pool their resources and work together if they want to improve access to the vaccines.