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Boston hospitals offer relief for COVID ‘vaccine deserts’

A pharmacist prepared a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Nashville, Tenn., last month.
A pharmacist prepared a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Nashville, Tenn., last month.Brett Carlsen/NYT

Remember when it was hard to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine? For millions of US residents, it still is.

That’s why health professionals have created an online tool to help public health officials identify the nation’s “vaccine deserts” — places where a person would have to drive more than 15 minutes to be vaccinated.

The creators of the Vaccine Equity Planner estimate that 10 percent of the US population lives in vaccine deserts. Their project identifies these spots by combining survey data with mapping and travel time information from Google.

“The only way to actually truly control the pandemic is if we get equitable access across this country,” said John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and codeveloper of the website. He partnered with Ariadne Labs, a joint venture of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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Their website displays these regions on a color-coded map, as well as nearby health care facilities, churches, and schools where public health agencies could set up additional vaccination sites.

The website shows that the great majority of Massachusetts residents live within a 15-minute drive of a vaccination site. But it found sizable vaccine deserts in the western, rural part of the state.

The service also uses survey data collected by Carnegie Mellon University to identify regions of the United States where large numbers of people have expressed reluctance about getting vaccinated.

With this information, officials can target these areas for media campaigns to convince people that getting vaccinated is a good idea.

While anybody can visit the Vaccine Equity Planner, it’s mainly intended for government agencies, to help them more precisely target their COVID vaccination efforts.

As of last week, about 64 percent of US adults had received at least one vaccine dose. But Brownstein said that “medically vulnerable, disadvantaged populations, rural populations, tend to be left out, and as we know those are the same populations that got the worst of the pandemic.”

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The map of Tennessee, for instance, shows vaccine deserts scattered throughout the state. The map also shows large numbers of people near the cities of Nashville and Memphis have said that they don’t intend to get vaccinated.

Brownstein said that simply having easy access to vaccination centers would convince many reluctant people to change their minds and get their shots. “Access and confidence go hand in hand,” he said.




Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.