GEAUGA COUNTY, Ohio — Whether it is an urban neighborhood or homes on a country road, getting the COVID-19 vaccine to underserved communities remains a focal point for local and state health officials. With Johnson & Johnson shipping out its version of the vaccine, which doesn't require ultra-cold storage or a second dose, local health officials said their goal of vaccinating those living in hard-to-reach areas is even more obtainable.
Shipments of the Johnson & Johnson began being distributed across the state last week and plans have already been made to establish a large, mass vaccination site at the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University. While mass vaccination sites provide an enhanced level of reach, they won't necessarily benefit those without transportation or those who may be homebound.
That is where the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will truly shine.
"The Johnson and Johnson vaccine certainly is going to be a game-changer for all the counties across Ohio but for different reasons," said Geauga Co. Health Commissioner Tom Quade. "For a rural county, I think there will be a greater ability to take it on the road and to make sure we’re serving underserved populations that may be done have the transportation to get to a larger clinic."
That flexibility is due in large part to two advantages that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has over the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine does not need to be stored at temperatures as low as -20 degrees celsius or -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can be administered in one dose and has proven to be effective within two weeks of inoculation.
Pharmacies across Ohio have done a lot of the heavy lifting in the state's decentralized vaccination rollout plan. Discount Drug Mart, which has more than 70 locations across the state, has also been intimately involved in the mass vaccinations of teachers, administrators, and other school staff members since the company was named an Ohio vaccine provider.
"Every hour, every day, every week, we have this collective march across our 76 stores where we're protecting Ohioans against the virus with this vaccine," said Jason Briscoe, the director of pharmacy operations at Discount Drug Mart. "[The Johnson & Johnson vaccine] is definitely a big win from a big picture perspective. We now have additional vaccine available in our country which also means we have additional vaccine coming into our state."
While the new type of vaccine will provide greater flexibility, Briscoe said Discount Drug Mart's unwavering goal is to get as many Ohioans vaccinated as possible -- no matter if the vaccine is manufactured by Moderna, Pfizer, or Johnson & Johnson.
"There are some advantages to [the Johnson & Johnson vaccine] but by no means does having access to Pfizer or Moderna, which may not have the same type of operational flexibility, does that slow provider like Discount Drug Mart down," Briscoe said. "We've been blessed with an opportunity to step forward throughout the state to protect our communities and to this point it's been with the Pfizer product and the Moderna product. If someday there are available doses and the governor calls our number with the [Johnson & Johnson] product, we'll be ready as well. We are willing and able and ready no matter the environment we're needed and no matter the manufacturer that we have access to."
Although the Johnson & Johnson vaccine allows public health officials to reach some of the most underserved communities, Quade said those efforts will be substantially more labor-intensive. However, in Geauga County, Quade said the health department intends on partnering with the department of aging and Meals on Wheels to identify homebound individuals and plan routes that are as efficient as possible.
"In one day we can maybe get 20 people vaccinated as opposed to a one-day clinic where we can get 400 people vaccinated," Quade said. "But, number one, those folks still need to be vaccinated. Number two, we would only need to [vaccinate] them once [with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine."