The fight for the COVID-19 vaccine: Key to getting back to normal is accessibility to shots

WOODSTOCK, Ga. — We’ve reported on the issue of vaccine hesitancy across parts of our state as to why many Georgians are not getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

But as it turns out, the pandemic has shown there is another real problem facing many Georgians: accessibility to pharmacies.

Channel 2′s Jorge Estevez has spent months looking into the issues and found there are at least 10 counties in Georgia that qualify as a pharmacy desert.

There are 56,000 pharmacies across the country, but they’re not evenly distributed. Statistic show that 177 counties across the U.S. have no pharmacies — and 10 of them are in Georgia

That means 600,000 Americans live in a county with no pharmacy whatsoever.

Getting the COVID-19 shot at her area pharmacy meant everything to Flora Foster.

“It’s like you live in a house with your brothers and sisters, except in different places,” Foster said.

But knowing you can get it is just as good.

“I knew the family. So we all go to church together,” Foster said.

But not everyone across Georgia is as lucky.

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“We have people driving for two and three hours to try to come and get the vaccine because they believe they have access in a larger market than they do in the small market,” said Pam Marquess, owner of Woodstock Health Mart Pharmacy.

But the reality is not everyone can get a shot at their pharmacy.

Estevez found there were two big reasons for it. The first reason is that some people live in rural Georgia, and there is no pharmacy within hundreds of miles.

The second reason is they live in a city but have to compete with thousands of other people to get their vaccine at their pharmacy.

That’s why Marietta Drugs, an independent pharmacy in Woodstock, has been bombarded.

“That first week when we spread the word to the community that we had the vaccine, we started receiving 26,000 phone calls and emails per day,” Jonathan Marquess said.

And they were from all over the area.

“We’ve had people call us from Dalton to Macon trying to get a COVID vaccine,” said Jonathan Marquess, co-owner of Woodstock Health Mart Pharmacy.

And that’s just one pharmacy. People are desperate to find a shot.

“What COVID-19 is doing is it’s really highlighting these pharmacy deserts even more than they were already highlighted,” said Tori Marsh, research director for GoodRx.

GoodRx published a study that shows pharmacy deserts threaten to prolong COVID-19 vaccine rollout and get us back to normal.

“Areas that lack enough pharmacies for residents are going to have slower rollout,” Marsh said.

A pharmacy desert is any area with poor access to prescription medications.

In this case, it’s the COVID-19 vaccine.

In rural Georgia, these counties have zero pharmacies: Echols, Baker, Clay, Quitman, Talbot, Chattahoochee, Montgomery, Wheeler, Glascock and Taliaferro.

That means people who live there have to drive for miles to get a vaccine.

The metro-Atlanta area has a similar problem of accessibility. Even though you can seemingly find a pharmacy everywhere, you have to share those pharmacies with thousands of others.

For example, in Fulton and Cobb counties, about 5,000 people, on average, use just one pharmacy.

“What kind of help do you see happening? Would you want more people in here? What’s your biggest challenge?” Estevez asked Jonathan Marquess.

“To me, I think we get more providers out there giving the vaccine, and getting an appropriate amount of vaccine is going to be a very positive thing,” he said.

More access to vaccines equals more people getting the shot and getting back to a more normal life across all of Georgia. That’s life-changing for people like Foster.

“I feel wonderful,” she said.

Part of the solution is to have more mobile clinics in rural areas, which has been discussed and put into effect, as well as more mass vaccination sites to allow the higher volume of people who live near cities to get the shot.

Georgia has nine mass vaccination sites across the state, and more doctors are also getting the green light to give out vaccines.