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Experts Say It's A Herculean Effort For Rural Hospitals To Roll Out Mass Vaccination

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The coronavirus vaccine is taking longer to reach rural America. There are big hurdles to getting people vaccinated there. Will Stone reports on how hospitals are trying to overcome those hurdles.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: At his hospital in rural southeast Arizona, Ky Sanders says it was hard enough getting his staff the flu shot this fall. Mount Graham Regional Medical Center has 25 beds. About half are filled with COVID patients this week.

KY SANDERS: So then to try to roll out, you know, a mass vaccination program to all of our staff at the exact same time.

STONE: It's a lot of logistics for a hospital already strapped for staff. You need to store the doses properly, do all the paperwork, schedule the shots, monitor people afterwards without exposing anyone to the virus.

SANDERS: We've been working on our plans for a few weeks now. But now that we actually have the vaccine here, it's really coming faster than we really expected it to be ready for it.

STONE: As with many rural hospitals, Mount Graham got the Moderna vaccine. It's more manageable because it doesn't require ultracold storage and comes in smaller batches. In Texas, John Henderson says rural hospitals were overlooked in the first round of Pfizer vaccines, even though some had invested in specialized freezers.

JOHN HENDERSON: It's frustrating that you would go to that effort and expense and not be able to participate.

STONE: Henderson is president of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals and says many of them are now getting the Moderna vaccines.

HENDERSON: It'll get done, but it's a Herculean effort that'll be required of these communities and hospitals and clinics.

STONE: But a hospital having the vaccine is no guarantee it will get used.

TRACY WARNER: A third of the people that are in line said, no, I'm not interested.

STONE: That's Tracy Warner, who's CEO of Greene County Medical Center in central Iowa. Each vial has multiple doses. And once opened, they have a shelf life, which means Warner has to be sure there aren't leftovers.

WARNER: We want to maximize what we have and not get to a point where there is waste because we haven't been able to identify people.

STONE: And in smaller hospitals, the dosing needs to be staggered carefully. An immune response could sideline a nurse or doctor for a day, and they don't have staff to spare.

Samaritan Healthcare in Moses Lake, Wash., set up a drive-through to vaccinated staff, like Jennifer Avery, a physiologist.

JENNIFER AVERY: I'm good with needles.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK. One, two, three.

STONE: Avery works with patients who are very vulnerable to COVID.

AVERY: I just had to go with my heart, and that's science at its best. And the world moved mountains to get the right people working on the vaccine. I have to protect my patients, so that's why I decided to do it.

STONE: Her hospital was lucky enough to get the Pfizer vaccine in the first week. Samaritan's in charge of getting the vaccine to its workers and anyone who qualifies in three large, sparsely populated counties.

JAN STERNBERG: We have been really hard-hit in central Washington with this second wave.

STONE: That's Jan Sternberg, chief nursing officer for Samaritan. Here, just as it is nationally, the death rate from COVID is higher than in the urban centers.

STERNBERG: That just contributes to the weariness that everybody's feeling. And we want to make sure that we can get this new vaccine out to people.

STONE: Samaritan plans to take the vaccine on the road, packing it with dry ice to make sure it reaches anyone in the outlying areas who can't come there. Dr. Andrea Carter, the chief medical officer, was the first person to get the shot here.

ANDREA CARTER: We think it sends a very strong message. The medical community is willing to get the vaccine and wants everybody to get the vaccine.

STONE: And she says they are determined to get that done.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

KELLY: And that story comes from NPR's partnership with Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.