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The journey from Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay to the pharmacy at Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital in Onancock takes over an hour. 

First one needs to take the ferry, which shuffles passengers more than 21 miles that separate the island from the Eastern Shore. Then they need to travel another few miles to the hospital.

The distance and transportation creates a challenge for patients who need fast access to medication, said Nick Chuquin, president of Riverside Shore Memorial. It can also discourage patients from showing up to appointments.

“Sometimes because of work schedules, not enough mail for the mail boat to run, weather, there’s a delay in getting their medications,” he said.

Riverside Health will soon launch a prescription drone delivery program to help bridge that gap.

It’s a partnership with Virginia Beach-based DroneUp, the Virginia Institute for Spaceflight & Autonomy at Old Dominion University, the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation and planning officials on the Eastern Shore.

The group recently won a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the effort.

The project is an outgrowth of a 2020 partnership with DroneUp to see whether delivering COVID-19 test kits by drone could help stop the spread, according to a news release.

Chuquin said the new process will start with a doctor’s prescription, dispensed out of Riverside’s pharmacy as normal. 

Then it’ll be sent to a mobile command center on site, where officials package the medication and attach it to a drone.

A drone pilot maps out a flight trajectory to get the box straight to a patient’s home on Tangier Island or other rural areas on the Shore.

To start, Riverside is focusing exclusively on hypertension. 

The Eastern Shore has one of the state’s highest death rates from hypertension, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Chuquin said the hospital also wanted to stay away from any controlled substances or medications that require refrigeration.

The goal is to show proof of concept and eventually expand to helping address other diagnoses.

“If we can solve the access issue to medications … then people don't have to wait for it,” Chuquin said. “We can hopefully do more preventative and intervention than being more on the reaction side.”

Riverside is conducting test flights starting next week and plans to launch the project in June.