Inside One of America’s Vaccine Deserts
How rural areas could affect our Covid-19 immunity
Along a winding roadway festooned with lanky longleaf pines, a sign welcomes you to Meadville, Mississippi, population 519.
“Oh, we’re bigger than that,” says Cynthia Ann Wilkinson, a Mississippi State Extension agent, to the journalist who mentioned the sign in passing. Her co-worker and office associate, Suzanne Brown, intrigued and in disbelief, Googles the recent Census data. “It’s actually 604,” she says.
Meadville is the government seat of Franklin County, a 567-square-mile patch of rural America — one square mile for every 14 people. There are only two traffic lights here but more than two dozen churches. The 1,075-square-foot Okhissa Lake supplies residents with recreational pastimes — fishing and boating — and the dense Homochitto National Forest ensures the area is always awash in emerald green.
The county is astride both sides of the digital age: 70% of its residents have internet access, but only 9% have bandwidth enough to stream an ultra-high-definition video.
There is one hospital with 25 beds, but 14% of people don’t have health insurance to avail themselves of it. None have access to a brand-name pharmacy within the county’s borders.
But Franklin County is not an anomaly. There are, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 704 rural counties in the United States; 19% of Americans call rural places home.
In Clark County, Idaho, residents drive 45 minutes to buy groceries or medicine. In Petroleum County, Montana, about 16% of people live in poverty. The only hospital in Fairfield County, South Carolina, shuttered years ago. Such statistics might have only resonated with rural planners and sociologists, if not for the events of the last year: Remote, sparsely populated areas are often devoid of the facilities or trained personnel needed to distribute Covid-19 vaccines.
In Franklin County, about 13% of its population had received at least one dose of a vaccine by March 30. For context, in Hinds County, home to the…