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City Dwellers Are Driving To The Country To Take The Vaccines Locals Won't

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In big cities around the country, there are many more people who want the coronavirus vaccine than there are vaccines available. But in some states, rural areas have plenty to go around. And that has sent many people driving hours in search of a shot. Jonathan Ahl of St. Louis Public Radio reports.

JONATHAN AHL, BYLINE: If you go to the website vaccinespotter.org and pull up the map of just about any state, you'll see lots of red dots clustered around big cities, meaning there are no available appointments to get a COVID vaccine. But there are a lot of green dots in rural areas. That's what middle school teacher Meghan Baggett found when she tried to get a vaccine earlier this month. She had signed up on multiple waiting lists around the St. Louis area before her school district announced they were returning to in-person learning five days a week.

MEGHAN BAGGETT: And so as soon as I heard that, I was like, OK, I need to get vaccinated like now.

AHL: Baggett checked again with nearby hospitals, clinics and health departments but came up dry. Then a colleague suggested they drive to Festus, an hour and a half away.

BAGGETT: She knew somebody in the medical health care profession who was helping people sign up. And I gave her my information. And she signed me up for it.

AHL: Baggett will make that drive again in two weeks for her second dose. Liz Hamel, a health researcher with the Kaiser Family Foundation, says it's happening all across the country. Data doesn't yet show why the rural spots don't fill up with locals, but it's likely a combination of a robust supply, lower demand and less Internet access in rural areas, which is often essential for getting an appointment. But she cautions that it's not because rural people don't want the vaccine at all.

LIZ HAMEL: People living in rural areas have a lot of the same concerns about the vaccine that people living all around the country do. I worry that sometimes it gets painted with this broad brush like, oh, nobody living there wants the vaccine.

AHL: Hamel says Kaiser's latest survey shows 60% of rural residents want the vaccine, just 10% less than city folks. Those numbers check with Honor Evans. She's the administrator of the Crawford County Health Department about a hundred miles southwest of St. Louis. She says about 40% of the people who came here to Cuba, Mo., on a windy and drizzly day for their shots are from the St. Louis area. And she's fine with that.

HONOR EVANS: We aren't telling them they can't come and get a vaccine because of where they live. And there are a lot of people who, you know, spend time down here during the summer, and when they come back to float our rivers or stay in our lodges, we'll be glad that they're vaccinated.

AHL: Evans says it's still primarily locals who come to the health department offices on days when they administer a hundred shots. It's the big events like ones with 2,200 doses that attract outsiders. She says the most important thing is to get the vaccine into arms as quickly as possible. That's the same advice Marsha Parsons gives. The suburban St. Louis resident is sitting in her car during the mandatory 20-minute waiting period after getting her second Pfizer dose here in Cuba, population 3,300. She says it's worth the drive.

MARSHA PARSONS: I would say where they could first get it, you know, the first available that they can find to go for it.

AHL: Missouri is among the states now shifting doses to urban areas. But even so, the long drives for vaccines will likely continue as eligibility ages lower, even as vaccine supply is increasing. For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.