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Vaccine rollout: Lack of trust, resources of concern in rural areas

A lack of trust among rural Pennsylvanians and a lack of vaccine resources were the main topics of a virtual hearing Wednesday morning on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Organized by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, participants included state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, center chairman; state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine; Steven Johnson, president and CEO of UPMC Susquehanna; Dr. George Garrow, chief medical officer, Primary Health Network in Sharon; and Dr. Cary Funk, director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center.

Trust in science is low in the rural areas of the state with 25 percent of people in the Williamsport area and 30 percent in Lock Haven not willing to learn about or receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Johnson.

The 70 to 75 percent who are eager to receive the vaccine and trust the science behind both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are a majority of those who are most vulnerable — people 65 or over, those with pre-existing conditions or both.

Funk said the lack of trust presents a “two-prong challenge” that is fluid and changing as more information evolves. Besides gauging the number of people who are eager to be vaccinated, how do you get those who are not willing to physically get the vaccine?

“Rural Americans are less likely to get the vaccine,” she said. “Older rural adults are more likely to get it.”

She added that with more information and resources about the science behind the vaccines, stories and campaigns from people who are just like them could give them guidance.

New recommendations came from the federal government Tuesday night to adapt the vaccination phasing plan for distribution, now to bring those who are 65 and older and those who have pre-existing conditions into the phase 1A of vaccine distribution, said Levine.

That information had not yet been updated to the state’s Department of Health website as of noon Wednesday.

Those who are in those brackets and are interested in getting the vaccine are able to schedule through their doctor or local hospitals. UPMC has made their own website for locals to register for vaccines, but it is not yet online. More information will come out closer to the launch.

Levine also said health care facilities have been urged, “don’t waste vaccine,” and that they can start to give what they have left over from phase 1A to those in phase 1B. According to the DOH website, that includes workers in food and agriculture, postal service, grocery stores, education, public transportation, manufacturing, correctional officers and individuals caring for children or adults in day programs.

What Johnson and Garrow are reporting is that there just isn’t enough vaccines or resources to expedite the process to move on to the next phase.

“If we want to immunize, we are going to need more people, more nurses more technicians,” Garrow said. “If the state can help the organizations hire more people, that would be a huge help. That is what is holding us back right now.”

Pashinski even suggested bringing in National Guard technicians who could help administer the vaccinations at local hospitals.

Johnson stated a lot of worries financially for

Meanwhile, rural health care systems have their share of financial worries as they do not have the same amount of mechanisms or resources to store the Pfizer vaccines that have to be held at ultra-cold temperatures, Johnson said. The vaccines then have to be transferred to the vials and mixed by physicians before technicians are allowed to administer them to patients, he said.

“That adds additional costs,” he said.

The vaccines may be distributed through doctor offices, hospitals, clinics an pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens, Levine said.

There aren’t a multitude of chain pharmacies in the more rural areas for people to access, she said.

Garrow said Primary Health Network will be starting a mobile vaccine unit for use in the more rural areas of the state as supplies allow, but did not disclose a timeline as to when it will start and at what locations of the state.

Vaccine allocations are coming directly from Operation Warp Speed, a partnership initiated by the federal government.

With that, the vaccinations come at no cost to the patients.

The state does not know how much of the vaccine will be allocated to the state until the Friday before distribution, Levine said. Then the vaccine allocation comes sporadically throughout the week and not all on one day.

Though she believes about half of the phase 1A population has been given at least the first dose of the vaccine, there is also a reporting delay, Levine said.

Also, the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are close or have already finished their clinical trials and are set to discuss their emergency use authentications in early spring, Levine said.

“We don’t know exactly when we are going to get to phase two (general public),” Levine said. “If we get two more vaccines, it will increase the chances.”

“The key to getting past (COVID-19) is the vaccine,” Levine said.

Information should be forthcoming from the Biden transition team regarding vaccine distribution and allocations, according to Levine.

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