Vaccine rollout confirms public health officials' warnings

Vials of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are placed next to a loaded syringe at the Throop Civic Center in Throop, Pa. during a clinic on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. The Lackawanna County Medical Society had about 400 doses of the Moderna vaccine on hand to administer to those in the Phase 1A group of Pennsylvania's vaccine rollout plan, which is limited to healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents.

People did not think COVID-19 would be a big deal in rural areas, a panelist said during an online forum Wednesday on rural vaccine distribution.

“For many months, they were pretty accurate,” said Dr. George Garrow, chief medical officer for the Sharon-based Primary Health Network. “Unfortunately, in the fall COVID arrived in the rural communities.”

Garrow was among four panelists during the forum conducted by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a bipartisan, bicameral legislative agency that serves as a resource for rural policy within the General Assembly.

State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine was the first speaker. She said COVID-19 is clearly the biggest health crisis in 102 years.

Referring to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Levine said, “it really is a triumph that two safe and effective vaccines have been developed in a year.”

Yet she said the requirement that the Pfizer vaccine be stored at minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit is a limitation because “many rural hospitals do not have the facilities” to store it.

The Moderna vaccine only needs to be kept at 4 degrees below zero.

Garrow’s network includes more than 40 clinic sites, including locations in White and Young townships in Indiana County.

“Both our Jacksonville and Tri-County (Cherry Tree/Susquehanna Township) locations were recently approved as vaccination sites and we look forward to working with the community as the vaccine becomes available,” Garrow said. “We encourage those interested in receiving the vaccine to visit our (primary-health.net) website to schedule.”

“Even though 96 percent of residents say they want it, only 50 percent of staff say they do,” said Dr. Steven Johnson, president of UPMC’s Susquehanna network of hospitals and other care facilities in north-central Pennsylvania.

Dr. Cary Funk, director of science and society research for the Pew Research Center, said her organization’s polling found 52 percent of those living in rural areas would get a COVID shot, while 47 percent would not.

She said rural Americans are less likely than the population as a whole to want the shots, and older adults would be more likely than younger adults.

She noted the “people who are very worried, very concerned for themselves,” but said “those with little personal need” have less interest.

The question becomes, Funk said, “how to convince them? Trust obviously is an important factor as well.”

Dr. Nancy Falvo, secretary of the center’s board and representative of the State System of Higher Education faculty at the center, wondered if trust could be increased by having more local residents involved in promoting and giving the vaccine.

“There have been a number of public health campaigns over the years,” Funk said. “The more people you have who are trusted in that community, the better.”

She said such an effort “doesn’t all have to be grassroots” and should draw from as varied a population as possible.

Dr. Falvo asked what could help get the vaccine out the fastest.

The state health secretary said Pennsylvania is supposed to get $100 million in the new federal stimulus bill “but we don’t have it yet.”

She said volunteers will be used, but “we can’t rely on volunteers.”

Center Board Chairman and state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, wondered if there had been any thought about coming to the Legislature for upfront money while Pennsylvania waits for the stimulus money to catch up.

“I will pass that along to the governor,” Levine said.