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Rural areas still waiting for vaccines: "How can you be patient in a pandemic when people are dying?"

Reaching rural America: The wait for vaccines
Mobile health care workers in rural Virginia anxious over uncertainty of COVID-19 vaccine access 04:15

The heart of Appalachia beats with the help of nurse practitioner Teresa Owens Tyson. She runs the Health Wagon in Wise, Virginia, a mobile medical clinic providing free crucial healthcare to low-income and underserved people in southwest Virginia.

"They don't have reliable transportation. They don't have the money for fuel to go to a clinic," Tyson told CBS News' David Begnaud.

Many people in the area are uninsured, so along with freestanding clinics, the Health Wagon operates a mobile medical clinic serving six counties for free.

For 28 years, Tyson has navigated the rural Appalachian roads to service those who otherwise might not get medical care. But what they need now, she said, is the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Health Wagon serves two health districts in Virginia. Those districts account for about 2% of Virginia's population, and this week, they received around 2,100 doses out of approximately 120,000 vaccines allocated to the state — which is just under 2%.

The Health Wagon, which has more than 5,600 active patients, has not received a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Instead, the shots have gone mostly to hospitals, local health departments, and long-term care facilities.

"I'm just desperate to get the vaccine for my people," Tyson said.

Dr. Danny Avula, Virginia's vaccine coordinator, said there are not enough doses from the federal government to distribute to everyone who wants it.

"A month or two months from now, as new vaccines come on the scene, we'll be able to start feeding all of these channels of providers and pharmacies who can get out the vaccine at large scale," Avula said. 

Currently, Virginia is deciding who gets vaccines based on population—something Tyson said is not fair. Appalachia is more rural, but the need is enormous.

"Vulnerable populations need to be a priority in receiving this vaccine. They have chronic health conditions. They actually live 10 years less than our counterparts on the Eastern shore of Virginia," Tyson said. 

The Health Wagon said the poverty rate in the area it serves is 54% higher than the rest of the state.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who himself is a doctor, said the state needs more doses. 

"Right now, we are getting around 120,000 doses a week; we need about 350,000," Northam said. 

The pace of COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. is steadily rising, according to the CDC. More than 27 million Americans have now gotten at least one shot. While the state waits for more vaccines, Tyson said patience is not an option for her team.

"Oh my God, I can't be patient. I have to be a voice for the people that do not have a voice here. How can you be patient in a pandemic when people are dying?" she said. 

The Biden administration announced it's ramping up vaccine distribution across the country. Governor Northam reached out to CBS News about this story and said he hears from sites that need more doses across the state. Tyson remains hopeful Northam will distribute more vaccines soon. 

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