Midstate counties facing COVID vaccine obstacles, question of access or hesitancy?

Vaccinate PA

A “food desert” is a place where people don’t have reasonable access to a supermarket. Now, another kind of desert might be contributing to low COVID vaccination rates.

Springtime is green all around — it might not look like a desert. But this is a “pharmacy desert.” Meaning, no Rite Aid, CVS, Wallgreens or independent pharmacies for miles around. And at this critical point in the pandemic, that’s a big concern.

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“We’re shocked by this,” said Rose Ann DiMaria-Ghalili, a professor of nursing and associate dean for Drexel University. “There are pharmacy deserts across the state in both urban and rural areas.”

Pharmacy deserts are present in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, but especially in places like Perry, Juniata, Mifflin and Franklin Counties — say folks from the AARP, as well as Drexel and Harrisburg University officials.

This phenomenon is worrisome at a time when new state data shows none of the Pa. counties with at least 60% of residents vaccinated are in the Midstate. In fact, of the Midstate’s 10 counties, just two of them — Cumberland and Lancaster — are even above the statewide average of 50%.

Is it a question of access? Or is is vaccine hesitancy?

“I think it’s a combination,” said Geoffrey Roche, executive director of strategic initiatives and partnerships at Harrisburg University.

But Roche says that’s evolving.

“Earlier on, when vaccinations first became available, it was definitely an access issue,” Roche said.

Now, he says, some people just want to hear it from people they trust, like their own doctors or pastors, families and friends — and that’s harder for some people than others.

“We are all in the same storm of COVID-19 as a pandemic, dealing as a collective. But we’re clearly not all in the same boat,” said David Saunders, director for the Office of Health Equity with the Pa. Department of Health.

Some of the most urban and most rural areas of the state are actually in similar boats, in terms of relatively bad access to vaccines and information regarding the coronavirus.

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