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Rural Health Depts. Face Difficulties Getting COVID-19 Vaccine

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As of Jan. 13, the Athens County Ohio Health Department has vaccinated only 438 of its approximately 65,000 population for a frustratingly low .67 percent. Meanwhile, the county remains one of the counties in Ohio that is in greatest danger of COVID-19 spread.

Athens County is a rural Appalachian County in Southeast Ohio that also houses a major state university – Ohio University. Athens County is indicative of many rural counties across America.

The Spectrum Podcast decided to look deeper into this issue

Why is the number of vaccinations so low? The answer is lack of supply of vaccine, according to Dr. James R. Gaskell, Athens City-County Health Commissioner and Medical Director. Each Thursday or Friday, the local Health Department is notified by the Ohio Department of Health of the number of vaccine doses it will receive on the following Monday.

The trickle-down of the vaccine from the manufacturers to the federal government, to the states and then to local rural areas is not flowing smoothly.

For example, next week, Athens County hopes to get about 200 to 300 more doses of vaccines to start to inoculate people 80 years of age or older. About 600 local people in that age group have requested the shot, but less than half will be able to be inoculated next week. The delays continue and the disease spread grows.

Meanwhile, residents of some assisted living facilities and other congregate settings for older Athens County residents (Groups 1-A) have still not received vaccinations to be supplied by CVS and other pharmacies.

So, Group 1-A in priority has not been served and now Groups 1-B (ages 65 and over) will need to wait because supplies are not reaching the local areas.

Dr. Gaskell emphasizes that every week’s supply of vaccine is put into arms that same week.

The slowdown is not in the administration of vaccinations. It is in obtaining the vaccine.

We have the facilities and the staff to get the job done if we can get the vaccines, Dr. Gaskell says.

Athens County has about 8,000 residents 65 years old and older, according to Dr. Gaskell, and to date, about 1,300 have requested the vaccine. At this point, Dr. Gaskell cannot predict how long it will take to get vaccines in the arms of this group.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise, and masking and social distancing are mandatory to protect against spread, Dr. Gaskell says. He suggests that virus precautions will need to be taken until 80 percent of the population has been vaccinated.

We are ready if we can get the vaccines, says Dr. Gaskell, even though his staff is already stretched thin with increased case numbers, increased contact tracing and vaccinations.

Add to these problems, thousands of Ohio University students return next week to increase the area population and increase congregate living settings.

Yet, Dr. Gaskell calls his staff indefatigable and ready to go when doses get to the county. But, for now…they wait.