LaShawn Scott receives the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine from Sarah Bishop, Director of Infection Prevention at University of Louisville Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky on Monday, December 14, 2020. Rural health experts are concerned with the pace of vaccine rollout in rural areas. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Some rural officials wonder whether the effort to distribute the newly approved Covid-19 vaccine will reach rural hospitals and health clinics fast enough. 

More than 2.9 million doses of the vaccine will be shipped out by the end of this week using FedEx and UPS, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said

So far, rural hospitals aren’t reporting any problems with getting the vaccines. said Brock Slabach, the National Rural Health Association’s senior vice president for member services in an email interview. 

The biggest concern for the NRHA is making sure that rural communities are treated equally to  urban areas. 

“NRHA is concerned that within each population priority group, both now and into next year, that rural populations within each of those groups have the same access as those in urban areas,” Slabach said. 

“So, if Phase 2 priority is for high-risk groups, for example, chronic disease, will the person with this description in western Kansas going to the vaccine at the same time as someone in Topeka?”

The vaccine rollout will prioritize healthcare workers and those in long-term care facilities, according to a recommendations to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The second stage of vaccine distribution will cover essential workers and those at high-risk, but exactly who that covers has not yet been determined. 

According to some experts, widespread availability of the vaccine for most Americans won’t happen until spring or early summer next year. 

While Slabach worries whether residents in remote and rural locations may have to wait longer, others said there is concern about getting access to the equipment necessary to store the vaccines. 

A vial of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is displayed at University of Louisville Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

The vaccine developed by Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech SE, must be stored and transported at -94 degrees Farenheit, which requires special freezers and/or dry ice. 

According to Reuters, more than a dozen U.S. states, including Washington, New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana and Indiana, are working to get enough dry ice to keep the vaccine stable once it arrives. The vaccines come in suitcase-sized shipping containers and, once opened, can last up to 30 days, as long as they are re-iced every five days. The shipments come with one refill of dry ice. Each individual must receive two doses of the vaccine.

Some states are looking to the Moderna Inc. vaccine, Slabach said, which can be kept in a standard freezer. 

“I have gleaned that many states are waiting for the Moderna vaccine, and its less stringent ultra-cold storage requirements for rural and remote access,” he said. That vaccine is expected to be approved soon.

Because President Donald Trump has left distribution of the vaccine to states, distribution plans will vary across the country. In West Virginia, where the proportion of the rural population (38%) is more than twice the national proportion of 14%, the state will have a five-phase plan for the vaccines, Governor Jim Justice has announced.

  • Phase 1A is for healthcare workers and those in long-term care facilities. 
  • Phase 1B is people who provide essential community services such as first responders, public health officials, and emergency personnel. 
  • Phase 1C covers hospice staff and home health staff. 
  • Phase 1D covers teachers and other workers critical to the operation of the state or local governments. 
  • Phase 2 is for the general public.

“We will get a limited supply of vaccines at first, so our team of experts are still finalizing the plan to make sure that the vaccines are available to all West Virginians, starting with those who are at highest risk,” Justice said Friday in his daily Covid broadcast. 

He said the state plans to conduct the first phase of the vaccine distribution in the first six weeks. “As our allocation increases and distribution occurs, we may be able to move through the phases more quickly,” Justice said. 

Justice said the rollout will test West Virginia. On the same day as his announcement, members of the West Virginia Joint Interagency Task Force for Vaccines drill to help prepare for the final operational plans for the vaccine shipment’s receipt, handling and distribution processes throughout the state. 

“The rollout of our Covid-19 vaccination program will be challenging,” Justice said. “It will take a lot of work. But without any question, between the National Guard and all the players that are working with them, we’ll get this done.”