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'Pharmacy deserts' are new front in the

Jorge Figueroa was willing to drive eight hours round trip.He wasn't goin

'Pharmacy deserts' are new front in the
05 Mart 2021 - 16:00
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Jorge Figueroa was willing to drive eight hours round trip.

He wasn't going on vacation or to visit a relative.

Instead, he was planning to get a life-saving shot to protect him from COVID-19 -- a shot that many Americans can now conveniently access at their neighborhood pharmacy.

It's an issue that millions of Americans also face.

After scouring social media for pop-up vaccine events and putting his name on waiting lists at local clinics, he eyed a vaccine hub in Odessa, some four hours away. But without a guaranteed appointment, an eight-hour drive and the possibility that he'd wait in line for hours, it was too big of a commitment for a risky trip from which he could come back empty handed.

On Saturday, his luck turned. After weeks of desperate searching, multiple follow-up calls with providers, and a last-minute scramble for an open spot, Figueroa got an appointment and his first shot at a clinic in Presidio that day.

Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images, FILEO'Reilly Street, the main street in the city of Presidio, Texas, is pictured on Feb. 1, 2020.

With coronavirus deaths topping the grim 500,000 milestone in recent days and the case count inching towards the 30 million mark, many Americans are eagerly hoping the vaccines can bring some normalcy back to their lives.

Nearly 83 million of the doses have been put into people's arms so far.

But many health experts and community leaders worry about equity in access when the vaccination program expands to the wider public later this year because of disparities in the existing health care infrastructure and location of drugstores in underserved neighborhoods.

MORE: Biden says there will be enough vaccine for American adults by end of May

Even though 90% of Americans live within 3 miles of chain pharmacies, there are many others who live in so-called food and health care deserts, without a single grocery store or pharmacy in close range, said Dr. James Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College and a member of Biden's COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.

According to ABC News' analysis of pharmacy locations across the country, there are 150 counties where there is no pharmacy, and nearly 4.8 million people live in a county where there's only one pharmacy for every 10,000 residents or more.

Based on Census data, there are far fewer pharmacies per person -- especially chain pharmacies -- in rural parts of the country compared to in urban areas, especially in Southern and Plains states.

The drugstore disparity is particularly significant in majority-nonwhite rural neighborhoods, where there is on average one pharmacy per 9,888 people, compared to one pharmacy per 8,045 people in whiter rural neighborhoods.

The racial gap exists throughout the country, including in urban areas, where there are more pharmacies in whiter and wealthier neighborhoods per person than in poorer, predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods.

This means that residents in rural communities could have fewer options to get shots as the country moves to vaccinate the general public, health experts say, while pharmacies in underserved urban communities are set to be more crowded and inaccessible as they are expected to serve a far bigger population.

ABC News, ABC News Photo Illustration'Pharmacy deserts' are the new front in the race to vaccinate

When ABC News asked major chain pharmacies about their plans to help ensure underserved communities had equal access to the vaccine, Walgreens pointed to a pilot program with Uber rolling out in coming months, which will offer free or discounted rides for vaccinations in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and El Paso.

CVS's partnerships with Lyft and nonprofit organizations like the YMCA will similarly offer free or discounted rides.

President Joe Biden has described equity in vaccine distribution as the "No. 1" priority for his administration. He has emphasized that millions of doses have been directed to community health centers specifically to target vulnerable populations, and boasted the federal government's partnership with more than 6,700 pharmacies across the country, saying "almost everyone" lives within the reach of a pharmacy. He also committed to providing mobile units to go into neighborhoods that are hard to get to.

But partnering with pharmacies isn't enough to ensure equal access to vaccines, experts say.

"While pharmacies represent a critical resource in communities for preventative care services including vaccines, their distribution is based on economic factors rather than population representativeness," said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital and ABC News contributor.

"In order to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines, the rollout needs to ensure that geographic accessibility is not a barrier to access especially for those who would benefit the most," Brownstein said.

'Shoe leather' efforts to get people vaccinated

Dr. Ali Khan, the executive medical director at Oak Street Health in Chicago, said there's a "perverse logic" in how the early vaccine distribution effort has played out in the city so far. He said much of the early resources have gone to major institutions concentrated in wealthier, whiter parts of the city, when underserved communities were the ones hit harder by the pandemic.

So Khan's facility has partnered with the city of Chicago to actively bring vaccines to underserved communities, relying not just on online registration to reach people but also through "shoe leather" efforts like knocking on doors and engaging with community organizations such as faith-based organizations or housing access organizations.

In Detroit, where data shows fewer pharmacies serve larger populations in predominantly black neighborhoods compared to in whiter neighborhoods, the city is taking a similar approach.

In addition to a mass vaccination site at a convention center downtown, the Detroit Health Department has partnered with two of the city's largest churches, Fellowship Chapel and Second Ebenezer, to hold weekly "Senior Saturday" events to vaccinate up to 500 Detroit residents 65 years old or older -- an effort to directly infuse vaccines into communities most impacted by the pandemic.

WXYZDetroit Mayor Mike Duggan watches as Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, the Pastor of Fellowship Chapel, talks about the "Senior Saturday" program to vaccinate senior citizens against COVID-19 at churches, during a press conference in Detroit, in February 2021.

"There are trusted community voices, trusted community partners that can be very well utilized in helping to attack vaccine hesitancy and provide a foundation of trust for those in the community and greater accessibility also for community residents," said Bishop Edgard Vann of the Second Ebenezer Church.

"The key word is 'trust,' not 'vaccine,'" said Bishop Vann, who also sits on the executive board of the Henry Ford Health System, which works with the city and the church to organize the "Senior Saturday" events.

Pamela Wilson, 61, shared that spirit when she took her 83-year-old mother to get vaccinated at the Second Ebenezer Church last month. She said she had the option of taking her mother to a different vaccine site further down in the city, but chose the church site for "extra blessing."

But the Detroit resident-exclusive vaccination opportunity at local churches was not available to Geri Withers, a 77-year-old resident of the township of Canton, just outside of Detroit. Withers had called, texted and emailed numerous big-chain pharmacies close to her home, but she ended up making a 30-minute trip to get vaccinated at a Meijier store in Southgate.

Hildreth said it's time to identify and empower trusted community messengers to reach the public.

"There are organizations that have the capacity, that are trusted to get this done, but we've never felt empowered to do so," Hildreth said. "And I think that's one thing that needs to be done -- to recognize other assets and bring all the assets to bear on the problem. We haven't yet done that. We need to do that."

ABC News' Ashley Louszko and Laura Coburn, and Boston Children's Hospital's Benjamin Rader contributed to this report.

Source : abcnews.go.com
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