Rural pharmacies bring unique opportunity to the community’s vaccination effort

Getting an appointment for a vaccine is no easy task, but it’s even harder if you live in a rural community. Until now.

IRVINGTON, Ky. — Rural pharmacies that are distributing the COVID-19 vaccine are facing the same challenges that larger pharmacies face across the United States. They are also overcoming additional obstacles and given unique opportunities for their communities.

“I had people clapping when they came out saying I’m so thankful, I got my first dose,” Gabe Van Lahr, pharmacist and owner of Save-Rite Drugs, said.

Getting doses of the COVID-19 vaccine has been a long process for Van Lahr and his independently owned Save-Rite Drugs Pharmacies, “This process for us started back in December.” That’s when he began filing paperwork to get vaccine shipments to his rural pharmacies, like the one in Irvington, Kentucky. 

“And we were really kind of worried, will we ever have an opportunity to provide the vaccine? When we got that call, we were anxious, but it was relieving to know we were going to get it in our smaller communities,”  Van Lahr said.

They received their first doses of Johnson & Johnson a couple weeks ago. By that time, they had a long list of locals needing the vaccine.   

Locals like Judy and Ben Newton. Ben has what’s called locked-in syndrome after suffering a stroke years ago. It means his mind is completely sound, but he can’t move his head or body. The couple communicate through his eye movements. “If he did catch COVID-19, he wouldn’t be able to recover from it probably,” Judy said.

Judy had asked their advanced home care to give Ben the vaccine but they said they couldn’t. She also called some of the larger pharmacies, “And they had already gone to nursing homes and said, ‘No, we’re not going back out.'” 

Ben hasn’t seen his son or mother in a year. “He lays here and watches TV. To not have family be able to come, it’s heartbreaking,” Judy said.

That changed recently when Van Lahr said he’d come to their house and give Ben the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. “It just makes me cry thinking about it that he was willing to come when I couldn’t get anybody else to help us. But he was willing to come,” Judy said.

Since then, Van Lahr has received another shipment of vaccines, normally he’s given only two days notice. “We’ve been ready and we’re still ready to help our local patients,” Van Lahr said. His hope is that the shipments will become more consistent so he can start booking people out ahead of time. 

Van Lahr has helped many other home-bound locals just like Ben and Judy and continues to offer the vaccine however he can. “You’d think you can go to a big city and all these things are available to you and that’s not always true, sometimes it takes the small,” Judy said. 

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