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Pandemic highlights importance in fighting ‘pharmacy deserts,' especially in communities of color

pharmacy desert
Posted at 9:45 AM, Feb 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-25 11:27:55-05

Rebecca Mawuenyega’s impact goes beyond the numbers we have come accustomed to using to gauge success in this pandemic, though she has those to show for it.

“About 9,000," she said of COVID-19 vaccines her pharmacy has given out. "Yeah, I’ve given about 9,000 shots.”

Mawuenyega’s impact is more about what she has done for each person who has entered her pharmacy or anyone who has needed her help.

“Most of the people I have saved over the past two years I have gone to them as opposed to them coming to me," she said.

A native of Ghana, she bought Dellwood Pharmacy in St. Louis County, Missouri in March 2020, right at the start of the pandemic. Those were days she spent bringing medication and even groceries to many of her elderly customers who could not leave home.

“I’m so thankful I have this pharmacy; that I’m able to help the most vulnerable," Mawuenyega said.

She provides care in a community that, without her, could be considered a pharmacy desert.

“A pharmacy desert is a neighborhood where the majority of the population lives more than a mile or a half a mile--depending on their income and vehicle ownership--from their nearest pharmacy in urban areas," said University of Southern California associate professor Dima Qato.

Qato studies which communities have close access to pharmacies. Prior to the pandemic, she found twice as many pharmacies closed in communities of color in urban areas. Places, she says, where people are more likely to use public insurance such as Medicare and Medicaid, which she says pay pharmacies less than what many private insurance companies do.

“So, if you’re a pharmacy and you’re thinking about where to open, that's not really a market; that's not the best market from a business standpoint," said Qato.

Qato says more needs to be done to increase reimbursement rates for public insurance so communities, like where Rebecca Mawuenyega’s pharmacy is located, aren’t left behind.

“Most of our people here are low income. Most of them don’t have access to transportation, so having these facilities close to them is extremely important," Mawuenyega said.

For her, it is important people here have access. It’s also important to trust the person they see in the white coat behind the counter.

“I think my role here of being an immigrant also helped a lot. In being Black also helped our people open up to be vaccinated," Mawuenyega said. “It gives them some level of comfort that, OK, I am one of their own.”

It’s proof that her work, which is far from over, is leaving a mark that will last beyond the pandemic.

"It has been a privilege, honestly. It has been a privilege to meet people when they need you the most. So, that has been the biggest privilege of my life," Mawuenyega said.