ADA — Mobile health clinics, which for years have been traveling to deliver medical care in places where there are few pharmacies and public transportation is scarce, may offer one solution to the vaccine equity and accessibility problem that has developed in the early stages of Ohio’s vaccination effort.
The traveling vaccination clinics, equipped with medical-grade storage necessary to keep vaccines cold while on the road, will soon start popping up in rural and under-served communities throughout northwest Ohio.
“We’ve got, essentially, a doctor’s office on wheels,” said Michael Rush, director of Ohio Northern University’s HealthWise program, which oversees the school’s mobile health clinic that was recently approved as a traveling vaccination site.
The university developed its mobile health program in 2015 after Hardin County was deemed a medical provider shortage area. Poverty was high; many residents weren’t up to date on their vaccinations and were missing regular cholesterol or blood pressure checks; and there were few doctors practicing in parts of the county where adults were less likely to own a car, making it difficult to travel long distances for medical care.
The mobile clinics allowed ONU pharmacists and pharmacy students to work directly with under-served communities nearby, administering flu shots, screening for cancer or helping residents manage their diabetes.
The program has since expanded into other counties, offering tobacco cessation assistance at the West Ohio Food Bank in Lima and traveling to the Bluffton Public Library once a month.
The university is now gearing up for its mobile vaccination effort, which will travel to churches, food pantries and other locations deemed accessible for residents in communities where few vaccinations have been given.
Accessibility, hesitancy fuel disparities in vaccine uptake
“If you don’t have a car — and a significant portion of our adult population in Hardin County doesn’t have a car — it might as well be Dallas or Houston, because it’s just hard to get to,” said Steven Martin, a professor and dean of Ohio Northern University’s College of Pharmacy.
Limited supply of vaccines and strict storage guidelines meant few providers were able to administer vaccines early on, even once eligibility expanded beyond healthcare workers and nursing home residents, making it difficult for Ohioans who lived far from a vaccination site or whose internet access was spotty to make an appointment.
And then there were the information gaps, fueled by distrust of medicine and infrequent communication with doctors.
“They may not normally receive health care from a primary care provider, so they may just not think that they should get the COVID-19 vaccine or they may not have good information about it,” Martin said.
So even as Ohio was making progress in getting shots to seniors, some of the most vulnerable seniors were not getting shots at all. Vaccination rates among Black Ohioans throughout the state have lagged those of white residents, despite higher rates of death and severe illness from COVID-19 among African-Americans.
In Allen County, only 7% of African-American residents have received a shot since late December, while just shy of 13% of the county’s white residents have been vaccinated.
“We’d like to get ahead of it so that it doesn’t become an issue in the future,” said Beth Keehn, director of government and community relations for Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center, which is working with Allen County Public Health, Lima Memorial Health System, Health Partners of Western Ohio and grassroots organizations to improve vaccine equity through public service announcements, listening sessions and informational seminars.
“Navigating how to get it, where to get it, who to call is a challenge for everyone,” Keehn said. “And so if you were somebody who didn’t have family members working in health care, or maybe you weren’t accustomed to making a bunch of calls and asking to get to the front of the line — you were worried and hesitating to make the call — you missed the opportunity, because the appointments just booked so quickly.”