Pharmacy Deserts: How Wilson County is handling vaccine distribution

Wilson County health officials feel good about distribution.
Wilson County Health Department

WILSON COUNTY, Kan. – New research from Good RX, an American healthcare company that operates a telemedicine platform and tracks prescription drug prices, suggests that residents who live in “vaccine deserts” could have reduced access to covid-19 vaccines.

The company defines “pharmacy deserts” as “areas where residents have to drive a long distance to the closest pharmacy, or areas with low pharmacy density per person.”

The research conducted by the company shows that “pharmacy deserts” could also be “vaccine deserts,” where the rate of vaccination is slower because more people are sharing a small number of pharmacies, and residents have to drive further to get to one — like in rural areas.

So, we spoke with health officials in Wilson County, Kansas, where the population is just about 8500 and there’s only 2 pharmacies, to see how distribution is going so far. There is not a CVS, Walgreens or Walmart pharmacy in the county.

“I think it’s going really well,” says Wilson County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney.

One important thing the article by Good RX doesn’t include is the fact that health departments and hospitals are currently doing vaccine administration — and as vaccine supply increases, states will continue to send doses to more providers. Like family physicians.

Dr. McKenney explains that collaboration is something they’ve used to their advantage.

“The benefit we have in rural areas is just that we know our people. We know each other,” says Dr. McKenney. “So the hospitals and the health department and pharmacies are all working together. We just text each other or call each other up and we can figure stuff out pretty quickly. So, as new of a process as this is, I think things are going very well.”

A big part of the research that does apply to Wilson County is the fact that the hospitals, pharmacies and health department — where vaccines are being given — are all located either in Neodesha or Fredonia. Meaning that residents that live a far distance away have to drive several miles to get to a vaccine site.

“Our most vulnerable people might, they might be in a long term care facility, but they might be at home and they might not have a way to get in. And so we do want to try to figure out how to get those people vaccinated. Just like we’ve started doing these phone visits and home visits and everything else, I think we’re gonna have to be a little bit creative,” explains Dr. McKenney.

Right now, like every county across Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri that we cover, the most limiting factor is vaccine supply.

“It’s really frustrating to have so many people willing to help and so many people wanting the vaccine, and not have the vaccine to give them,” says Destiny Wheeler, Director for the Wilson County Health Department.

But what about when supply is available — and every resident in the county is eligible?

Officials say they plan to do things the same way they are now because it’s working. So they know it will be difficult, but they feel good about it.

“It’s really frustrating to have so many people willing to help and so many people wanting the vaccine, and not have the vaccine to give them,” says Wheeler. “So, it’s a doable thing to get everyone vaccinated. It’s just maybe not gonna be quite as timely as in the bigger metropolitan areas.”

“I really believe that we have the manpower, we have the desire,” says Dr. McKenney. “I mean, we have the hard working people to be able to say, ‘I will work all day and night and weekend to get everybody vaccinated who wants to be vaccinated.”

Wheeler explains that since there isn’t a Walgreens Pharmacy in the county, long-term care staff and residents are still waiting to be vaccinated. All of the long-term care facilities in the county are contracted through Walgreens.

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