For many struggling to make a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, the last thought after finally getting their name on a list is one that is key to successful vaccine distribution: “How am I going to get there?”
“There’s not a community in the country where somebody doesn’t have transportation challenges,” said David Turner, director of Oswego County, N.Y. Community Development, Tourism and Planning.
In Oswego County, a rural county around 1,000 square miles, residents who need a ride to a COVID-19 vaccine can utilize a free, on-demand call service.
Turner said the county received federal transportation assistance and allocated CARES Act money for the rural transit system.
Individuals can call and make an appointment to arrange rides to and from vaccination locations. Currently in New York, county health departments, hospitals and pharmacies are receiving vaccine allocations with each location serving as a vaccination site for different categories in the vaccine rollout plan, Turner said.
In the first few weeks, around 75 to 80 people utilized the service.
“What we didn’t want to happen was people to not even try to get an appointment because they knew that they didn’t have transportation,” he said.
With a high poverty level across the county, Turner said they were aware of the challenges many would face when seeking transportation to vaccine appointments.
“One thing that we wanted to try to ensure was that anybody who was eligible for and wanted to receive either testing or vaccinations had the ability to do so,” Turner said.
There are several challenges with vaccine distribution and transportation, according to Turner, specifically with the lack of doses and fast turnaround time from when the county receives the vaccines to notifying the public about clinic opportunities. He said when someone finds out they have an appointment, they may not have a lot of time to figure out their transportation plan.
“It’s all very last minute,” he said. “We’re very happy to be able to make the service available, but we just have no way to plan for what the need is going to be so we’re gearing up and ready to go and just waiting for people to say ‘I need help,’” he said.
Other counties are working to tackle transportation issues to ensure residents can get to and from vaccine appointments.
In Linn County, Iowa, the county’s paratransit service and countywide public transportation, known as Linn County LIFTS, is also providing free, next-day rides for county residents.
Linn County Mobility Coordinator Terry Bergen said he sees transportation as a key partner with public health when it comes to ensuring the public is vaccinated.
“We want to use it to help people get vaccinated if that’s something they need,” he said.
Bergen said with decreased ridership levels because of the pandemic, there has been some additional capacity within the system to incorporate rides for vaccinations.
“If they find that they’ll have a transportation challenge, they call our dispatch office and that gets scheduled either on one of our normal routes or we’ll send somebody out separately to their house,” Bergen said.
The county is specifically targeting people who are eligible in the first phases of the vaccine distribution including the elderly and those in other vulnerable categories.
“We will be available to get them rides whether it’s now or as the process goes on to other vaccination locations because we just see it as being important to all of our residents to get as many vaccinations done as quickly as possible,” he said.
St. Clair County, Ill., which borders St. Louis, Mo., is utilizing its transit services to provide free transportation to a mass vaccination site at the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds & Expo Center in the county.
“We basically wanted everybody to have access,” said Ken Sharkey, St. Clair County Transit District managing director.
The St. Clair County Transit District service began in February and allows individuals to take the MetroBus or MetroLink to a transit center where a St. Clair County Transit District Express Shuttle Bus Service will take them to the fairgrounds.
Sharkey said the county also contracted with Southwestern Illinois College for a paratransit service to transport older individuals from their homes to the vaccination site.
“We’re just going to provide as much transportation and anybody that needs a ride to get a vaccine — they’re going to have a ride here in St. Clair County,” he said.