What is a ‘vaccine desert’ and how do we avoid them?

ACTON, Mass. — Nancy Spencer wore two masks as she walked briskly into her local pharmacy.

“I’m breaking a promise right now to my family by going into CVS,” Spencer said. “They don’t want me to go into a supermarket or CVS.”

The 73-year-old from Stow said she is patiently waiting her turn for the vaccine. When she is eligible, she doesn’t know where that first dose will come from.

“I have no idea where I would go,” Spencer said. “I am concerned about getting it. I mean, Do I have to drive to [Gillette] stadium? I’ll have to see,” Spencer said.

According to the state’s COVID-19 vaccination locations map, towns on the western side of Middlesex County like Acton, Stow, Concord, and Boxborough are anywhere from 15 to 30 miles from the nearest vaccination site.

Acton Health Director Sheryl Ball said the nearest options—Lowell General Hospital and UMass Memorial in Leominster and Marlborough--are at least a 20-minute drive away.

Spencer said she’s willing to go just about anywhere to get the shot, but what about people who can’t drive or don’t have easy access to a location?

They’re living in areas called “vaccine deserts.”

“Vaccine deserts are essentially areas where we have low vaccine uptake, largely because we don’t have the ability to deliver vaccines to those places,” Boston University epidemiologist Dr. Matt Fox said.

“In the case of the coronavirus vaccine, that has a lot to do with the fact that it requires such an intense cold chain that we can’t be delivering the vaccine--at the moment—to just any community we want to,” Dr. Fox said.

Healthcare company GoodRx took a closer look at “vaccine deserts” and found one of the determining factors is the number of pharmacies in each community.

“Much of the country lives in an area with low pharmacy density, meaning residents have to share their local pharmacy with more people,” GoodRx researcher Tori Marsh wrote in a Jan. 14 post.

According to GoodRx, the national average for pharmacies per 10,000 people is 1.83.

Six Massachusetts counties—Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Worcester—and Hillsborough in New Hampshire are below the national average, GoodRx said.

The state gave Acton 100 doses last week and the town is taking proactive steps to get the vaccine to its most vulnerable citizens, Ball said.

Acton nurses and EMTs administered 20 doses to Acton residents last week, including a 103-year-old man.

“We have two CVS in Acton. They are working to open clinics, both of them. I feel that with just a little bit of time we’ll have additional sites where our residents can obtain the vaccine,” Ball said.

Dr. Fox said the key to avoiding vaccine deserts is a dose that doesn’t require such extreme temperatures, such as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“If we can get more of those into circulation, then those can be moved out into areas where there is less of an infrastructure to be able to deliver that really intense cold chain that you need for the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine,” Dr. Fox said.

Pharmacies per 10,000 people, according to GoodRx (national average is 1.83):

• Barnstable: 2.22

• Bristol: 1.88

• Dukes: 2.42

• Essex: 1:48

• Middlesex: 1.38

• Nantucket: 2.95

• Norfolk: 1.64

• Plymouth: 1.56

• Suffolk: 1.73

• Worcester: 1.49

• Hillsborough (NH) 1.6

• Rockingham (NH): 1.9

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