LANSING – Sgt. Sheila Peters, the Alger County emergency management deputy director, has lived in her Upper Peninsula county her whole life. She said a 45-minute drive to the closest pharmacy isn’t unusual.
That’s because Peters lives in a pharmacy desert, defined as being more than a 10-mile drive from the nearest drug store.
And in the winter, Peters said, U.P. roads can be especially treacherous, which makes the drive for medicine that much more difficult.
In Burt Township in Alger County, the nearest pharmacy is 39 miles away, one of the furthest drives to a pharmacy in Michigan, according to a map from Cardinal Health.
Among the state’s 230-plus pharmacy deserts are Ransom Township in Hillsdale County, Whitefish Township in Chippewa County, Montmorency Township in Montmorency County, Powell Township in Marquette County, Norwich Township in Missaukee County, Lovells Township in Crawford County, Nottawa Township in Clare County, Lee Township in Allegan County and Norman Township in Manistee County.
The term “pharmacy desert” can be traced back to a 2014 publication by Dima Qato, a pharmacy professor at the University of Southern California.
Heather Christensen, the president of the Michigan Pharmacists Association, said some state residents have to drive more than an hour to get to a pharmacy.
Drug stores provide more than just medicine though: They provide clinics, measure blood pressure and test for diseases such as the flu and COVID-19.
Even with the government sending vaccines to pharmacies in rural areas, there are still communities that aren’t able to get them.
The existence of a pharmacy desert “pretty much goes hand-in-hand that you’re not having primary care,” Christensen said.
If people can’t get to a pharmacy, they might not start taking necessary medications, she said, although since the pandemic began, some pharmacies have started mailing medicines.
The rules for pharmacies have changed slightly so medications can be refilled without seeing a provider, and some medications can be mailed that couldn’t have been mailed before.
Christensen said it can be difficult for pharmacies, as businesses, to make a profit in a rural area.