BUNKER HILL, WEST VIRGINIA — Since December, Ken Reed and his wife Tally, the owners of a small chain of pharmacies in eastern West Virginia, have been waking at dawn to travel to rural counties to vaccinate as many long-term care residents as possible.
The Reeds say their familiarity with the people in counties like Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, and Pendleton makes all the difference in gaining their trust.
“These are your neighbors, your friends, your friend’s parents, and you just treat them like you’d want to be treated,” Ken Reed said.
West Virginia, a small and mostly rural state with a large elderly population, was tagged early on as a place likely to struggle with Covid-19 and any vaccine rollout.
But the state is now being hailed as a vaccine success story, with 85 percent of its delivered doses already used, according to Centers for Disease Control data, putting it second in the country behind North Dakota as of last week.
A key part of the strategy, health officials say, was the decision not to activate a federal partnership with the CVS and Walgreens pharmacy chains and instead rely on independent drugstores like those owned by the Reeds.
“We are a scrappy state that’s resilient,” said Dr. Clay Marsh, West Virginia’s coronavirus czar and vice president and executive dean of health services at West Virginia University.
“But we absolutely rely on the creativity and the innovation of all of our people. Because we don’t want to rely on external resource requirements for us to be able to do what we need to do.”
West Virginia’s early success is all the more striking given that a study published by the Kaiser Family Foundation in April 2020 ranked it as the state with the greatest share of adults at risk of serious illness if infected with Covid.
In an Appalachian state known for country roads, mountains and a dying coal industry, the population has long suffered from high rates of comorbidities including smoking and chronic conditions that drive its low overall health ranking.
But the state’s unique characteristics have in many ways aided its Covid response.
The relatively small and homogenous population has contributed to its success, said Dr. Gabor Kelen, director of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins. And the state actually outperforms the nation in some aspects of health care, including access to primary care physicians and percentage of insured patients. Only 6 percent are uninsured compared to 9 percent nationally, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
“Access to primary care physicians for the population at least allows people to have trust … in the public health system,” said Kelen.
Much of that population lives more than a 45-minute drive from any outlet of the pharmacy chains that dominate most other states. Health officials say that leaves local independent pharmacists, like the Reeds, best situated to provide operational and medical expertise.
Ken Reed said there was no red tape involved in joining the state’s vaccination effort when he got a call from a health official.
“Because we’re the boss,” he…