Washington works to improve COVID-19 vaccine distribution, confidence in rural America

Washington D.C. Bureau

WASHINGTON, DC (NEXSTAR) — At least two COVID-19 vaccines are within arm’s reach, and state and local health departments are creating plans for distributing it.

But these efforts could hit more roadblocks in rural communities, where there are fewer health facilities and people.

“It’s gonna take a whole effort in order to get the vaccine there, and reassure folks that it’s safe and they should come get it,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-LA.

Polls show some Americans are still skeptical about taking a coronavirus vaccine, but Cassidy hopes the rollout, starting with healthcare workers and nursing homes, makes everyone else more confident.

“If your neighbor’s a nurse at a rural hospital and you’re not sure about the vaccine, but she takes the vaccine and you really have a high regard for her, I think it’ll make you feel more comfortable the fact that two months later she’s doing great,” Cassidy said. “If you go to visit your grandmother who’s in a nursing home and now all of a sudden you can go in, and before they wouldn’t let you and you know that your grandmother is safe again, that’s reassuring.”

Cassidy, a doctor who used to treat uninsured patients in Louisiana’s charity hospital system, is working with the National Institutes of health, community leaders and medical schools to help states reach underserved populations, particularly in rural areas where it’s more difficult to store a vaccine and distribute it quickly.

“It’s challenging because of the cold chain requirement for some of the vaccines, but we know it’s possible,” said Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the chief advisor for the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed.

Different vaccines require separate distribution plans. Moderna said its vaccine should be stable at standard refrigerator temperatures of 36 to 48 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 days, while the Pfizer Inc. vaccine must be shipped and stored at ultracold temperatures or on dry ice, and can last at standard refrigerator temperatures for up to five days.

But Dr. Slaoui said agreements with CVS and Walgreens will help rural areas.

“These vaccines will be available there,” he said.

There are also concerns about how the controversial transition of power from the Trump White House to a Biden administration could impact vaccine distribution.

“More people may die if we don’t coordinate,” said President-elect Joe Biden.

Biden continued to pressure the Trump administration this week to share its plan.

“If we have to wait until January 20th to start that planning, it puts us behind,” he said.

However, Cassidy argues the vaccine companies have their own distribution strategies.

“No matter who the president is, this is going to go forward,” he said. “There’s a lot of good work that’s gone into this.”

Dr. Slaoui predicts the first rollout could be just weeks away, with the entire U.S. population possibly vaccinated as early as June.

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