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No pharmacy for miles: How rural Americans are getting overlooked in the COVID vaccine rollout

March 4, 2021, 2:00 AM UTC

It’s fairly clear, according to medical experts and local governments, that your zip code and rung on the economic ladder can shape your path to a COVID vaccine. A new report suggests it can be a particular struggle for rural Americans.

Are you a savvy Internet user who can sniff out the closest appointments? Someone who lives within a few miles’ distance of a CVS pharmacy (which federal and local governments have partnered with to distribute shots at a community level)?

That’s a supply and logistics problem which looms over Americans of every stripe, and minority populations specifically. In rural America, according to a new report from the Rural Policy Research Institute, the problem can be especially acute, owing to a lack of said pharmacies.

There’s a large public-private partnership component to the COVID vaccine rollout that is dictated by practicality. When you have multiple entities, working through a federated web of governments and private firms, attempting a mass immunization campaign, things can get messy. And that necessitates cooperation.

But the rural policy report underscores the gaps such an ad hoc process can produce. Based on data from the National Council for Prescription Drug Programs (NCPDP), the organization finds a dearth of qualifying pharmacies in such regions that could administer COVID shots.

While the majority of nonmetropolitan counties have more than two available qualifying pharmacies that may offer vaccines, there are more than 100 counties which have no eligible pharmacies, according to the analysis.

In fact, the numbers may be even worse depending on the kind of eligible pharmacy you’re talking about. There are 21 pharmacy chains and groups directly partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). If you just count those, the number of rural counties with a serious lack of access swells to 442.

What complicates the issue is that there are also inter-pharmacy relationships when it comes to COVID. One spot that doesn’t have the resources or manpower to administer vaccines may rely on the help of others, however far away, who can.

But the report’s ultimate conclusion highlights the struggle for rural Americans as a result of this supply chain issue: “A significant number of the entities represented in the data will be unlikely to provide vaccination resources because of the nature of their business.”