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Alpena doc recognized for driving vaccines

News Photo by Crystal Nelson MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena President Chuck Sherwin, second from right, and Regional Vice President of Medical Affairs Richard Bates, far right, on Thursday talk during one of the hospital’s vaccination clinics.

ALPENA — An Alpena doctor has received national attention for his willingness to drive the COVID-19 vaccine nearly 150 miles from Midland to Alpena, highlighting the struggles of rural health care.

Richard Bates, a former OB-GYN and regional vice president of medical affairs at MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena, has for weeks regularly traveled about 300 miles roundtrip in his pickup truck to bring the COVID-19 vaccine to Alpena from Midland.

Bate’s journey, highlighting the logistics of getting the vaccine to rural Northeast Michigan, was first published nationally in the Washington Post last month. It has since been picked up by newspapers nationwide, and Bates has appeared on national television networks like MSNBC.

Bates said he’s “just a bump on a log from Alpena,” and he didn’t know his story would draw national attention.

“I got texts and emails from people who are in Florida and are Alpena natives but loved seeing their hometown mentioned on the national news in such a positive light,” he said. “That was pretty meaningful to me — that they still identify as Alpena people even though they haven’t lived in Alpena for years.”

Courtesy Photo Richard Bates, a physician and MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena Regional Vice President of Medical Affairs, right, in December unloads the first COVID-19 vaccine doses to arrive in Alpena in this photo provided by the hospital.

Bates said hospital administrators had the foresight to buy the freezers and MidMichigan Medical Center-Midland was one of five hospitals in the state pre-authorized to receive the vaccine.

While waiting for the first shipment of vaccines to arrive last month, Bates said the media had gathered at the hospital in Midland and Washington Post reporter Kayla Ruble was among them.

Bates said Ruble asked if she could follow him up to the hospital in Alpena and he said, “sure.” Although Bates didn’t know what angle she would take in her story, he believes the nearly three-hour drive up north, much of it on two-lane roads, made an impression on her.

“Most people in America find a way to live close to a freeway and can zip here or there,” he said. “Driving up from Standish along the lake is a different experience.”

Bates has couriered the vaccines to the Alpena hospital about five times now.

Before each trip, the vaccines are taken out of the freezer in Midland and put in a 2-foot-by-2-foot box, which Bates said can hold up to 300 vaccines.

The temperature of the vaccines is monitored throughout the trip and the box is given to the hospital pharmacist upon arrival. Once a vaccine is removed from the freezer, it must be administered within five days to be effective.

Hospital President Chuck Sherwin said he believes the story resonates with people because Bates was a physician that cared enough to drive the vaccine to Alpena and it highlighted the challenges of running a rural hospital.

“When you look at apps where hospitals are located, if you look at a map of Michigan, including the (Upper Peninsula), and you look at where all of the hospitals are, it becomes very glaring that we’re out in the middle of nowhere with no one around us providing health care services from a hospital’s perspective, which is unique to most states and specifically in Michigan,” Sherwin said.

Sherwin said a woman from Arizona, who had never lived in Alpena but had an uncle who worked as a physician in the community decades ago, saw the article in the Washington Post and sent the hospital a check “for us to use for the good work we’re doing.”

“Not that Rich was looking for the notoriety, by any means, but we’ve reached the nation to say you can have success in small towns and you can have significant impact, as long as you’re working at it, you find value in it, and you’re making it an important priority for your community,” he said.

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