Some Rural Areas Are Leaders In Rolling Out COVID-19 Vaccines Some rural areas, where health care is usually harder to get, appear to be leading the nation in delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine. But health leaders are cautioning there are caveats.

COVID-19 Vaccinations Are Off To A Slow Start — But Not In Some Rural Areas

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Getting the coronavirus vaccine rolled out to people who need it has been chaotic in many parts of the country. But some rural communities where health care is usually harder to get are doing well in the initial phases. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We haven't scheduled any...

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In the tiny town of Oak Creek, Colo., a three-hour drive from Denver assuming the roads are clear, Gene Bracegirdle, a firefighter and EMT in training, is getting his first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

GENE BRACEGIRDLE: I mean, the fact that it is here is kind of mind-blowing - like, they care enough to reach out to the rural communities.

SIEGLER: The vaccine arrived in Oak Creek via a blue Igloo cooler in a new mobile clinic set up by the local Routt County. They used CARES Act money. Health officials here are tasked with distributing the vaccines to a population of only about 25,000 people spread across 2,300 square miles.

BRACEGIRDLE: It's exciting to see the initiative being taken.

ALAN MORGAN: It is early.

SIEGLER: Alan Morgan is CEO of the National Rural Health Association.

MORGAN: But I think what we can take away from this past two weeks is states that place a priority on rural tend to have a successful rural rollout.

SIEGLER: Morgan says some rural communities also just have fewer logistical hurdles to deal with and smaller numbers to get vaccinated. That may be the case in Kittitas County, Wash. Public health officials there are reporting they've now offered the shots to almost all of their first responders, nursing home residents and staff. More than 1,300 people have taken it. Rich Elliot is leading the county's vaccine distribution plan.

RICH ELLIOTT: Just, you know, in terms of complexity and scope of the problem, we're not dealing with something like a King County, which is the Seattle area.

SIEGLER: Elliot is also Kittitas County's deputy fire chief, and they've had a lot of recent wildfire emergencies, so they were able to quickly adopt many of the same protocols and triaging from those response plans and shift them to vaccine distribution. They're now in the enviable position of having some extra doses in this first phase - enough that they could give shots to 75 high-risk teachers. But Elliot says they're trying not to get too far ahead of surrounding counties or the state of Washington's phase distribution plan.

ELLIOTT: The appearance isn't good when a health care worker at a busy hospital in Seattle can't get a vaccine, and we're offering it to teachers just so we don't waste vaccine.

SIEGLER: This speaks to the huge variability and availability from even just one county to the next. And it's why public health officials are cautioning against reading too much into these apparent early rural success stories. Recent CDC figures do show that rural states like Maine, Montana, the Dakotas have led the nation in per capita vaccine distributions. But that may only be because those states are reporting numbers quicker.

According to the National Rural Health Association, 40% of all rural hospitals in Texas still say they have no access to any of the shots. The association's Alan Morgan says health care providers need the federal government to be more transparent and share data so they can figure out what's working and isn't. The outgoing Trump administration has largely left the pandemic management up to states.

MORGAN: What I'm really concerned about is going forward into April and May, when the general populations can obtain this, where will rural be at that point?

SIEGLER: Morgan worries rural America will only continue to be hit harder than its urban counterparts when it comes to hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.

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