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Making the 140-Mile Trek to Vaccinate Healthcare Workers in Rural Michigan

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Richard Bates has spent his life taking care of other people, delivering babies at MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena, the most geographically isolated hospital in Michigan. Over the past few weeks, he’s been driving hundreds of miles delivering thousands of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to nurses and doctors working in one of the most remote regions of the state.

His journey underscores the challenges of administering the drug in rural areas. Many small-town providers have yet to receive their first dose. With the right equipment and proper planning, MidMichigan Health is making sure its workers get first access to the vaccine. 

Precious Cargo

Bates is proud to do his part to make sure his neighbors and colleagues have access to the vaccine, despite the challenges involved.

Located in Northern Michigan, Alpena is one of the most remote cities in the country, with a population of just over 10,000 people. Yet, over 100,000 locals from the surrounding area depend on MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena for care. The next closest hospital is two hours away, 70 miles from the nearest exit on the interstate.

To get the drug to the people of Alpena, Bates has been spending a lot of time behind the wheel. He tucks a large cooler containing doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into the passenger seat of his Honda pickup truck. He buckles the seatbelt and puts his arm out in front of the cooler when he comes to a stop as if he were driving around a small child. He then drives three hours, around 140 miles, from Midland, MI to the rural hospital in Alpena.

As a healthcare worker, Bates says the trip reminds him of his time in the delivery room, helping mothers give birth under stressful circumstances.

“The only thing I can liken this to really is that feeling,” he said. “Once the baby is in your hands, you don’t think about the pain of labor anymore…all the hopes and dreams are there.”

Bates plans to keep making deliveries over the next few weeks as MidMichigan distributes thousands of doses of the vaccine to nurses and doctors across the state.

A Special Delivery

Many healthcare workers in Alpena said they were surprised they got the vaccine so soon after it was approved for emergency use by the FDA. Across the entire county of Alpena, which includes some 30,000 people, over 1,100 have contracted the coronavirus, and 29 people have died of COVID-19.

Residents often have nowhere else to turn when it comes to medical care; Bates says it’s not uncommon for patients to travel over 60 miles to the medical facility.

Katie Torok has been volunteering in the hospital’s vaccine clinic. She’s grateful to have access to the drug now instead of later. “I’ve got six children, 10 grandkids. I always tell my family I’m going to live to be 129,” she said. “Whatever little steps I have to take to do that, I will.”

For Torok and her colleagues, working in Alpena can be isolating.

“Sometimes when you live up here, you feel different,” she said. “I want our community to know that we are part of all this.”

To make sure the providers of Alpena weren’t left out of the vaccination process, Bryan Cross, MidMichigan’s lead pharmacist and head of ancillary services, monitored the development of the COVID-19 vaccine as it made its way through the approval process. In October, he saw that Pfizer and BioNTech were on track to become the first to release a vaccine, so he started prepping his facility for its arrival. He ordered two large ultra-cold freezers just as Pfizer released safety data from the clinical trials process. The freezers arrived just days before the FDA approved the vaccine for emergency use.

As the first shipments started going out, MidMichigan Health landed on a list of five hospitals that were “pre-positioned” to receive the vaccine. Bates soon hit the road to deliver the first round of vials. The facility ended up getting 2,900 doses of the drug, nearly three times what was anticipated.

Providers are lining up to get the shot as the virus continues to spread throughout the community, a place where many people still don’t wear masks.

Alexa Ramacher, a registered nurse and supervisor, was one of the first to get vaccinated. “I come here and I wear a mask the whole time and, you know, I’m stripping down in the garage every night. I get home and showering and all that before I come in,” she said. “It’s frustrating to see those people that think it’s a hoax.”

Health experts are hoping to reach herd immunity in Alpena once 70% of the population has been vaccinated.

Building Trust in Rural America

Getting the vaccine to Alpena shows locals that they have just as much access to the drug as Americans living in major cities.

“We’re not getting it six months after Detroit or New York or San Francisco; we’re getting it at the same time,” said Daniel L. Maxwell, chair of the hospital’s department of medicine. “To me and to our community, that’s a really important message.”

In a small town like Alpena, everyone knows each other, and providers are rolling up their sleeves to show their neighbors it’s safe to get vaccinated.

“It’s a small community. These guys walk into Walmart, everybody knows who they are, and they see that they are trusting this vaccine that they took; that speaks volumes,” Bates added.

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