Stories from a nearby Tennessee county and Bourbon County, Kansas, illustrate rural hesitancy about Covid-19 vaccines

Fort Scott in Bourbon County, Kansas (Wikipedia map)

Rural whites, especially conservatives and men, are among the least likely to get a coronavirus vaccine or believe the virus is a serious threat. Two stories from an NPR and Kaiser Health News partnership explore that phenomenon. The first “appears to confirm findings of a national poll in January by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found doubt about vaccines higher in rural areas” from Nov. 30 to Dec. 8, the Louisville Courier Journal reports. So does the second.

The first story comes from Fort Scott, Kansas, pop. 8,087 and seat of Bourbon County, named for the one in Kentucky. The county lost its hospital in December 2018, and is more than an hour’s drive to Kansas City, Sarah Jane Tribble reports. But that didn’t seem to affect attitudes of those she interviewed. Many residents don’t think Covid-19 is that dangerous, feel unsure about the safety of the vaccine, and say diagnoses could be the flu or other ailments.

Fort Scott in Bourbon County,
Kansas (Wikipedia map)

“Factors such as age and occupation also play a role in attitudes toward the vaccines,” Tribble reports. Also, “Rural Americans are more likely to think of getting a vaccine as a personal choice and believe the seriousness of Covid is exaggerated in the news.”

Locals have seen evidence of the pandemic: One in 11 of Bourbon County’s 14,000 residents have been infected with the coronavirus, and about two dozen have died. “Most people know someone who had the virus and survived — but residents just seem tired of talking about it,” Tribble reports.

Jason Wesco, executive vice president of the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, a regional health center that took over primary care in Fort Scott after the hospital closed, told Tribble that he believes vaccine hesitancy is declining as supplies become more abundant: “When residents are directly provided the opportunity to get a vaccine, they consider it more seriously, he said. And the more people they know who have gotten a vaccine, the more likely they will be to get a shot.”

Hartsville, Tenn. (Wikipedia map) 

The second story comes from Hartsville, pop. 7,870, in Tennessee. There are more than enough vaccines to go around, but the Trousdale County Health Department has had a hard time filling slots at local vaccination drives, Blake Farmer reports.

Local resident Cris Weske told Farmer that he doesn’t need the vaccine because he’s healthy, and said he’s “kind of anti-vax” in general because he believes they’re toxic. He claimed the U.S. Constitution supports his choice to opt out of vaccination.

Sometimes vaccine-resistant people’s stated reasons are hard to figure. Cindi Kelton is 67 and has COPD and emphysema, both of which put her at high risk of Covid-19 complications, but she told Farmer she’s more scared of the vaccine than the virus. She said she had planned to get the vaccine, but in January her doctor died from Covid-19 in January. “It’s unclear whether he was vaccinated,” Farmer reports. “Either way, Kelton says it gave her pause.”

Farmer adds, “To this point, there has been scant attention paid to batting down rumors or answering vaccine questions in many rural communities. Public health officials have been far more focused on underserved groups concentrated in urban areas. But it’s rural communities where a few leaders are actively sowing doubts. They include state legislators and even a few pastors.”

Ministers are seen as key allies in boosting vaccination in Southern states, where rates are lowest, but most of the ministers participating are from Black churches. Though Black congregations share with rural white residents a distrust of the government, one Black pastor told Farmer that vaccine skepticism can be overcome with outreach efforts.

Another resident, a 74-year-old woman, highlighted another difficulty in boosting rural vaccination rates: She doesn’t have a computer and, since local vaccine drives are advertised mostly on social media, she had no idea she was eligible, Farmer reports.

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