How do people without cars access COVID vaccine drive-thru lines?

Line of cars at COVID drive-thru testing/vaccination site
Photo via North Carolina National Guard/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: July 7, 2021

As the United States rushes to vaccinate Americans against COVID-19 with as many as 4 million per day and with about 47% of the population fully vaccinated, many states have opted to invest in drive-thru lines in massive parking lots, often adjacent to stadiums or other large venues. Though many applaud these drive-thru sites as an efficient and safe way to administer the vaccine (and to actually speed up how many Americans can get it), health experts question how people without cars can access COVID vaccine drive-thru lines. 

Operating much like drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites, drive-thru vaccination sites allow high-risk individuals to get vaccinated without risking exposure to the disease. People eligible for the vaccine simply drive up to vaccine sites, wait in line, and are inoculated through their car window. 

Critics say these drive-thru sites add to the inequity already plaguing communities across the nation by allowing only those with access to vehicles to be inoculated. 

According to Census data from 2016, around 8.7% of U.S. households don’t have a car. The data also found that car-free households are “more common in densely-populated urban areas and high poverty neighborhoods where residents can’t afford vehicle ownership.” 

Data shows COVID-19 already disproportionately affects people of color. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Indigenous people are 2.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. Black people are 1.9 times more likely, and Latino people are 2.3 times more likely to die from COVID-19. 

Inmaculada Hernandez, an assistant professor at the Pitt School of Pharmacy, told the Washington Post that adding the burden of navigating public transportation or choosing between fewer vaccine sites that don’t require cars will only perpetuate those inequities. 

“Transportation, including the logistical gymnastics required for people without a car or who rely on public transportation, has long led to differential access to health care,” Hernandez said. “But it hasn’t been discussed as a potential reason for low vaccine uptake in communities of color as much as hesitancy or skepticism.” 

In predominantly Black and rural Belle Glade, Florida, for example, the closest vaccination site is 30 miles away. It takes 34 bus stops to reach the location, according to the Guardian.  

Traveling even just five miles to the nearest COVID drive-thru vaccination site can be both a risk and a burden to people without access to a car, according to the Washington Post. Some people are traveling from rural areas that don’t offer accessible public transportation. Even in densely populated metropolitan areas, packed buses, clogged walkways, and traffic jams might disincline people already hesitant about getting a vaccine. 

“We have to make sure that people don’t make it all about hesitancy,” Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told the Washington Post. “If you’ve got to take two buses and walk a few blocks, plus hesitancy, where is the incentive to go get that shot?”

To help improve access to vaccination sites, Mass Transit Magazine released several recommendations for how public transit agencies, state health officials, and the federal government can work together. 

Mass Transit recommends transit workers get national vaccine priority, that states choose transit-friendly locations for vaccine sites, and that transportation is free when traveling to get vaccinated. The magazine also recommends that healthcare workers come to vulnerable communities instead of waiting for those communities to go to them, with mobiles that deliver vaccines (other Latino groups also recommend this).

In San Jose, California, one solution has been to set up a vaccination spot at a light rail station. Those who aren’t using a car can ride the train to that station for free and get vaccinated as a walk-up. And in north Texas, free bus rides were set up for those who didn’t have a car.

Sources: Governing, CDC, Washington Post, Guardian, Mass Transit Mag

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