How far would you travel to protect yourself from Covid-19?
As Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout remains encumbered by technical issues and long waitlists, more seniors are journeying far from home to secure a shot.
Health care professionals are seeing residents from suburban Philadelphia trek as far as Allentown, Harrisburg, and the Poconos to get vaccinated, where local pharmacies and grocery stores tend to have more doses available than the densely populated counties surrounding the city.
“I hate the idea of my patients having to drive two hours to get a vaccine,” said Christine Meyer, MD, a primary care doctor based in Exton. “But for some of them, listen, I don’t have any other options for you.”
Meyer gained local recognition for starting PA CoVID Vaccine Match Maker, a Facebook group that connects vaccine “seekers” — often seniors who have trouble navigating the complexities of registering for a vaccine online — with “finders” — volunteers who answer questions and post leads on open appointments. In the group’s ten day existence, its following has surpassed 14,000 members.
“I got an appointment at Weis tomorrow!” posted one seeker in the group, noting her 1A position in the rollout order. “The drive is an hour and 40 minutes. Thanks all for your help on here!”
“Was fortunate enough to get an appointment at Weis this morning,” commented another seeker. “It’s not in my backyard, but 30 miles away. What I found is not to lock yourself into a particular zip code, but search the entire state.”
PA CoVID Vaccine Match Maker is flooded with comments like these, as desperate patients — many with serious health conditions that qualify them for immediate vaccination — document the struggles and successes of registration.
While more people getting vaccinated is crucial in the battle against the virus, Meyer is quick to note the risks and downsides that arise when seniors begin crossing county lines.
“The people who need this vaccine the most are the elderly, the frail, the ones that have medical problems — and they probably shouldn’t be schlepping across the state to get a vaccine,” said Meyer, citing the risk of Covid transmission while traveling.
Another of Meyer’s concerns is that long-distance travel is not always realistic. Some seniors might be fortunate to have children or grandkids that can drive them upstate, but many do not. This ability is a privilege that excludes large groups of seniors from vaccine protection.
More and more residents from Chester County, Montgomery County, and Delaware County are finding appointments in rural areas because the Pennsylvania Department of Health distributed the vaccine fairly evenly across counties, according to Meyer. With smaller populations and more likelihood of vaccine hesitancy — the refusal of vaccines despite availability — rural counties are sitting on stockpiles of doses.
Many seekers are finding doses at pharmacies like Walgreens and Riteaid, or the popular supermarket chain Weis.
However, according to Meyer, any healthcare facility administering the vaccine is required to set aside a certain amount of doses for patients outside their practice.
“People are finding these remote medical practices that happen to have vaccines and inserting themselves into this loophole of ‘I’m not a patient here’,” Meyer said. “True — but you also don’t live anywhere near here.”
Still, seniors are bundling up and braving the cold to make the vaccination journey. In early February, Marilyn Boccella, and her 94-year-old husband, Fred, set out from their home in Havertown to Shenadoah, PA, a small borough in Schuylkill County. Driving was Fred’s daughter, Kathy, who managed to secure the couple a vaccination appointment at a CVS.
With sandwiches and snacks on hand, the trio made the two hour drive with the windows rolled halfway down to lower the risk of the virus spreading within the car.
It was the farthest Boccella had traveled since the beginning of the pandemic in March.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” said Boccella. “I wanted to get a shot. We’re going to feel safer with it, that’s the thing.”
Though Boccella age puts her at risk for the virus, it was really Fred’s health that motivated the trip.
“He’s 94, so he’s more at risk,” she said. “That was the point of going — I just got lucky.”
Until more vaccine doses become available in the counties surrounding Philadelphia, Meyer thinks these vaccination journeys will continue.
But hope is on the way — sort of.
“We shouldn’t be playing these hunger games in March,” Meyer said. “But, if it opens up in March and people start getting the vaccines, it takes time to vaccinate all these people. Then it takes two weeks after that for immunization to do its thing. So we’re really in mid-April before we start seeing big numbers of people being truly immunized.”