The VaxMap displays how far people have to drive to get to a COVID-19 vaccination clinic.
Image: University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy and the West Health Policy Center

State officials need to consider mobile vaccination clinics to make it easy for rural residents and older adults to get a COVID-19 shot, according to new research.

University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy and the West Health Policy Center wanted to know how far people would have to drive to get to a vaccination site. They identified sites and then calculated how many people lived within 10 miles of the site.

They found that 35% of US counties have two or fewer of these vaccination sites and 1 in 10 counties have less than one facility per 10,000 residents. The VaxMap visualizes this data.

Lucas Berenbrok, assistant professor at the Pitt School of Pharmacy and lead author of the study, said in a press release that state officials have to design vaccine distribution plans to meet the needs of specific patient groups. Leaders have to factor in the limitations of the local healthcare infrastructure.

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That could mean adding more sites in places with short driving distances but fewer facilities. In regions where vaccine clinics are few and far between, health officials should consider mobile vaccination clinics to reduce the need to travel long distances.

Researchers used geographic information system software to map the more than 70,000 potential sites that could be used for giving shots of the vaccine. The goal was to calculate the average driving distance to the closest facility with an emphasis on high-risk populations such as people 65 and older.

Community pharmacies, federally qualified health centers, hospitals, and rural health clinics are all potential sites for vaccine administration. The research identified 70,549 potential sites.

The interactive map has filters for facility density, population 65 years and older who live more than 10 miles from a facility, and population more than 10 miles from a facility. Most residents of the East Coast and the South should have easy access to a vaccination site. People in the Upper Midwest and some Mountain states will have to drive farther to get a shot.

The counties with the fewest vaccination sites relative to population size are in Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and Virginia. People in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Kansas will have to drive the farthest with more than 10% living more than 10 miles from the closest facility.

In 12% of counties, at least half of the older population have more than a 10-mile drive. In the Dakotas, 25% of older adults live more than 10 miles away from a facility.

Tim Lash, president of the West Health Policy Center, said in a press release that clearly there are certain spots throughout the country that need more help and support than others.

“We did the analysis to help states and counties throughout the U.S. identify potential problem areas for vaccine administration and enact effective strategies and take measures to overcome them,” he said.

The researchers found that in 28% of US counties, at least 80% of the population lived within 5 miles of a facility. In 49% of counties, at least 90% of the population lived within 10 miles of a facility. Thirty-two percent of counties had at least 20% of residents with a driving distance greater than 10 miles to the closest facility.

Researchers used the 2010 US Synthetic Population dataset developed by RTI International to conduct the analysis.