As the general public awaits COVID-19 vaccination across the country and in Pennsylvania, questions remain about how vaccines will reach rural communities and how accepting of the remedy rural residents will be.
During a public hearing held by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania Wednesday, Dr. George Garrow, Chief Medical Officer of Primary Health Network, which has dozens of community health centers in central and western Pennsylvania, said adapting vaccine delivery for rural communities is key. That’s why the network purchased a truck outfitted to take COVID-19 testing and vaccines out into the community.
“The challenges in rural communities are that we don’t have a dense population and that people are sort of spread out,” Garrow said.
Garrow said he has also been reaching out to farmers, faith leaders and others to build understanding and trust for COVID-19 vaccines.
“Repeatedly, I heard, again and again, a lack of trust,” he told lawmakers. “A lack of trust in pharmaceutical companies, a lack of trust in healthcare organizations, a lack of trust in public health and lack of trust was a resonant theme throughout.” Garrow said he recognized trust in the community was going to be a critical component for the acceptance of COVID vaccine.
A Kaiser Family Foundation report released last week found rural residents are among the most hesitant about vaccines.
“Vaccine hesitancy among rural residents is more than just partisanship and is strongly connected to their views of the severity of the coronavirus and the reasons for getting vaccinated,” the report said. It suggested that “effective messages need to be delivered by trusted messengers and take into account these strongly held beliefs.”
UPMC Susquehanna CEO Steve Johnson said a robust supply of vaccines, public health messaging and adequate funding for the rollout are crucial next steps.
“We’re painfully aware that the vaccine distribution to date has been very fluid, it’s been awkward, in fact, unpredictable. But it is getting better,” Johnson said.
Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said during the hearing Wednesday that it’s unclear right now when the vaccination of the general public will start and it’s dependent on how many vaccines are available. But as they become available, members of the public should be able to sign up and schedule for shots via hospitals, Federally Qualified Health Centers, pharmacies in partnership with the federal government like Walgreens or CVS, or with their county health departments.
Levine said as of Wednesday, more than 342,000 vaccines have been given in Pennsylvania, including more than 42,000 in second doses.