Pharmacy deserts in Chicago could make it tough for many to get COVID-19 vaccine

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Many Chicagoans are already struggling to fill prescriptions because there are no drugstores in their neighborhoods, and that could also make it tougher to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Pharmacies are playing a big role in administering COVID-19 vaccines. So the I-Team wanted to know if access to those pharmacies is fair and even-handed. What our data investigation found is another hit to an already vulnerable population.

The I-Team's data analysis found fewer pharmacies on the South and West Sides than in North Side neighborhoods. These pharmacy deserts could make it more difficult for tens of thousands of residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's an attack on the poor," said State Rep. Ford La Shawn Ford, (D) Chicago.

RELATED: Limited pharmacy access for some Illinois Medicaid patients in Chicago

"If we have areas that don't have pharmacies, that creates an additional barrier for receiving the vaccination," said Sandra Leal, American Pharmacists Association.

Chicago has those barriers according to analysis of SafeGraph data, which compares all U.S. pharmacy locations to census demographic information. Our data team pinpointed all 395 pharmacies in Chicago.

There are five areas of the city with less than one pharmacy per 10,000 residents. Three of them are on the South Side, the fourth is on the Far North Side, and the fifth is O'Hare Airport.

"My work found that predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago have fewer pharmacies and are more likely to be pharmacy deserts, and are also more likely to experience closures," said Associate Professor Dima Mazen Qato, University of Southern California.

Pharmacy deserts are defined as communities in which residents live more than a half a mile from a pharmacy, and lack access to affordable transportation. It's more often an issue for the urban poor according to Qato, who estimates a third of Chicago's population is affected.

"We found that a lot of pharmacies did close, you know, in the last several years that have contributed to worsening pharmacy deserts, on the South and West Sides," she said.

I-Team research shows there are 254 pharmacies on the North Side, and 141 south of the Loop.

"We need to expand access to health care. We need to expand access to pharmacy services and not restrict them especially in vulnerable neighborhoods," said Dr. Huggett, family physician at Lawndale Christian Health Center.

Huggett has spent 25 years caring for some of Chicago's most at-risk patients on the West Side.

"There is still a lack of pharmacies, within relation to where people live, we have a lot of seniors, some don't drive, they have to get on the bus," said 17th Ward Ald. David Moore.

"That's what makes it difficult for struggling families, that lack the ability to take public transportation because it costs a lot of money. So, it becomes difficult when pharmacies are not integrated in neighborhoods, the way they used to be," said State Rep. Ford.

Without easy access to a pharmacy, industry experts said people are less likely to take medications and chronic conditions can become more severe and expensive to treat.

"The system is so fragmented," said Leal. "There's so many barriers that they're experiencing that it's hard for them when they're trying to do everything right, they are trying to get their medications, they are trying to be adherent, but it's the system and how it's fragmented that's actually causing the patient to have worse outcomes."

"So closures matter, they impact adherence. And they affect minority neighborhoods more than other neighborhoods, and therefore contributes to this kind of problem of disparities in our communities," said Qato.

Pharmacies are going to continue to be distribution hubs for COVID-19 vaccines, making it more difficult for residents of neighborhoods with few or no pharmacies to be inoculated.

"If we're going to be relying on Walgreens or CVS pharmacies, especially with very vulnerable populations on the west and the south sides, we're really, we're going to be missing a lot of people unfortunately. So we're very concerned about the whole issue of pharmacy deserts, especially on the west side," said Dr. Huggett.

Community leaders said they would like to see more investments made in South and West Side neighborhoods that would allow smaller mom-and-pop pharmacies to open additional locations.
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