RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia’s most vulnerable areas are giving out significantly fewer COVID-19 treatment pills than the least vulnerable areas, according to state data.

Throughout June 2022, the Virginia Department of Health says 14,740 prescriptions for Paxlovid and Molnupiravir were filled in the wealthiest ZIP codes with the most resources. Meanwhile, VDH says 3,296 prescriptions were filled in the lowest income ZIP codes with the least resources. Lower and middle-income areas combined accounted for 5,974 prescriptions last month.

Dr. Alexis Page, a pharmacist focused on therapeutics for VDH’s COVID-19 Task Force, said the state has been tracking disparities based on the social vulnerability index since these treatments first became available in Virginia at the beginning of 2022.

Page said VDH is still trying to fully understand the reason for the disparity as the state simultaneously works on a plan to expand access.

“Just looking at the raw numbers, it doesn’t really paint the most accurate picture because you’re not taking into account population, transportation, the number of health care providers, those kinds of things,” Page said.

Access to the medication matters because treatments like Paxlovid, an oral antiviral pill, can significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“Supply is not an issue,” Page said. “It’s really, are people knowledgeable that therapeutics exist? Do you know how to access it?”

The FDA just started allowing state-licensed pharmacists to prescribe Paxlovid earlier this month. Eligible patients have to test positive for coronavirus and be at high risk of developing severe disease.

“Since Paxlovid must be taken within five days after symptoms begin, authorizing state-licensed pharmacists to prescribe Paxlovid could expand access to timely treatment for some patients who are eligible to receive this drug for the treatment of COVID-19,” said Dr. Patrizia Cavazzoni, director for the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement.

Page said VDH is still trying to figure out how many pharmacists will be participating because of the change and what the model for care will be. She said, while no one should be charged for the prescription itself, there may be costs associated with obtaining it.

“It’s a great step in the right direction,” Page said. “I think there are some questions though as to can a pharmacist charge a patient for the service of evaluating, assessing and prescribing? That’s not really clear yet.”

That could be a barrier that prevents some low-income Virginians from seeking out treatment.

That’s one of the reasons why the state is trying to set up more one-stop-shop sites that would offer testing, evaluation and prescriptions for free, according to Page.

Right now, access to so-called “test-to-treat” locations varies across Virginia, according to the federal government’s tracker.

This map shows the number of sites within 30 miles of some major cities as of Monday, July 18. In Virginia, the service is largely being offered at places like Kroger and CVS.

Page estimated there are currently more than one hundred test-to-treat sites across Virginia. She said VDH’s push to open new ones in the early stages. She couldn’t provide a timeline or say how many more locations Virginians can expect.

“I would love to have a test-to-treat location in every county. That’s a very ambitious goal,” Page said.

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