The “Aardvark” Mobile Health system for providing Covid-19 testing and vaccination services in its mobile form. (Photo: Jordan Woolley / Primary Health Primary Health Network)

From Pennsylvania to Alaska, healthcare workers are getting creative with ways to put shots into arms. 

But lack of vaccine supply is a major hurdle for putting their plans into action.

Dr. George Garrow, the chief medical officer for Primary Health Network, says he’s ready to take the vaccine to the people to ensure they get it. 

Primary Health covers 16 counties in mostly rural parts of Pennsylvania. Although geographically spread out, Primary Health is considered a federally qualified health center – meaning it is a community-based health care provider that receives funds from the federal Health Center Program to provide primary care services in underserved areas. 

Recently, Primary Health purchased an “Aardvark” Mobile Health system to provide Covid-19 testing and vaccination services to its rural communities, Garrow said. 

The new mobile health system features two complete exam rooms where healthcare workers can test for Covid-19 or give vaccines, said Carl Sizer, Primary Health Network’s acting finance director. 

“This mobile unit elevates PHN’s Covid-19 response to a new level by providing our clinical staff the ability to test for Covid-19 and administer the vaccine at a high capacity,” Sizer said in a statement. “Additionally, PHN can respond to needs of the communities we serve by driving this unit to the areas where we can make the greatest impact.” 

The unit is capable of testing and vaccinating patients and can be set up in about 45 minutes, Garrow said. That includes powering up generators for the freezers that keep the vaccines at the right temperature. The rooms can also be set up to create negative air flow to prevent the airborne spread of the disease, he said. 

Before they can start vaccinating people, however, the hospital needs two things — trust between the hospital system and patients in rural areas and more vaccines. 

The “Aardvark” Mobile Health system for providing Covid-19 testing and vaccination services after setup. (Photo: Jordan Woolley / Primary Health Network)

Rural residents in his service area face challenges when it comes to getting health care. Some may have to drive hours to get to a hospital. Some may not have access to the internet to sign up for vaccine waitlists. Reaching those people will take extra effort. 

“I’ve been doing a big effort to reach out to counties, communities, rural areas,” Garrow said. “I’ve been talking to farmers’ groups. I’ve been talking to trade unions. I’ve been talking to faith groups, you know, organizations and rural communities just to have a conversation, and then I just want to listen. What are your questions? How can I help you with what you are hearing? How can I dispel these myths and rumors?”

Because the vaccines have a limited lifespan once the seal on the vial is broken, he said, it will be important to coordinate how the vaccines are distributed and when. Doing that will require using other members of the community, he said. 

“There are groups in these counties that are already there, and so we’re working with, for example, area agencies on aging,” he said. “And we’re trying to recruit students that can volunteer to reach out to elderly neighbors and their community to give them a call or

knock on their door and say, ‘Hey are you interested in a Covid-19 vaccine?’”  

He envisions the mobile unit parking in a church parking lot, in front of an empty storefront, in a large neighborhood or public housing neighborhood. 

Since October, Garrow and other stakeholders – like emergency management agencies, health departments, clinics and others who serve rural areas – have been meeting and working together to ensure they have a seamless roll out of the vaccine. 

But now, the biggest wait is to get the vaccine. Although the health system has provided the vaccine to any healthcare worker within the system that wanted one, it is now waiting for more vaccines to arrive. 

“We had hoped to get it on the road in early February, but again, that’s under the assumption that we actually have vaccines to give,” he said. “As of right now, we’re kind of waiting for availability. As soon as the vaccines come in and we can get this baby out on the road, I want to get out there.”

On the other side of the continent in Alaska, four women have joined forces to provide vaccines in the northern part of the state, ..One medical doctor, a pharmacist and two nurses have traveled hundreds of miles via seaplane, snowmobile, and sled to vaccinate 65 tribe elders in 12 different towns. 

At one point, the team told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that they carried the vaccine off of a bush plane and put it on a sled towed by a snowmobile. 

“It’s challenging getting the vaccine up here to begin with and then getting it out to the villages brings on a whole new set of challenges and logistical issues,” Meredith Dean, a 25-year-old pharmacist told “Good Morning America.” “Time is of the utmost importance.”

Nurse Heather Kenison said because of the frigid air, she had to wrap the vaccine in a protective covering and put it under her coat to keep the vaccine from freezing inside the needle. 

“We made it work and we had a really good time together,” Dr. Katrine Bengaard told the morning news show. “We were all willing to crawl around trying to get into this tiny little plane. We were all willing to do what we needed to do.”

And in South Carolina, a rural health organization is waiting and ready to take their mobile health van into rural communities. 

At Clemson University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, the Joseph F. Sullivan Center has been performing health outreach in rural communities for nearly 40 years. Now, said Caitlin Kickham, director of outreach & wellness, for the Sullivan Center, they’re planning how Clemson Rural Health’s mobile units can get into communities to provide vaccines. 

“Our first mobile unit came around about 30 years ago, and we deployed it to do care in rural communities,” Kickham said. “Now, in 2021, we are covering the Upstate (of South Carolina) and the Midlands, so depending on where the partner is at and what the need is, we’ll evaluate it, and we’ll go out on our mobile clinic again.” 

Primarily, the mobile units cover things like breast cancer screenings and other screenings for those who may not have access to providers, or may not have the insurance to cover medical visits. Over the years, the mobile units have helped the healthcare providers to establish relationships with those in rural areas who may not have seen a healthcare provider otherwise. 

Now, Kickham said, they’re ready to deploy to rural areas to distribute the vaccines, as soon as they get the okay to do so. 

“From my perspective, I have already figured out how we’re going to do it and how we’re going to deliver it. I’m just waiting for that activation,” she said.

“We’re very excited to do it. We already have that patient trust. And a lot of the places we go patients aren’t connected with care, so they’re not going to get it from somewhere else. We’re not trying to create competition in anything that we do. We’re all about serving the patients. So, I think we could get a good target of people that otherwise would not be vaccinated, so I’m ready to do it. It’s just a matter of when.”