Ky. is a regional leader in vaccinations, but some rural counties lag far behind, and public-health officials blame misinformation

Photos by Liam Niemeyer, Ohio Valley Resource

Kentucky is a regional leader in immunization for the coronavirus, but vaccinations are slowing and many of Kentucky’s counties lag behind the national rate, not just the state rate.
Reporters from Ohio Valley Resource, a consortium of public radio stations in Kentucky and West Virginia, fanned out across the three states to dig into why some people got vaccinated, or not.
Public-health officials told OVR that the challenge is misinformation. “It’s those falsehoods and rumors about the Covid-19 vaccines, spread readily on various online forums, that officials say are becoming a significant barrier to reaching herd immunity,” OVR reports.
Some people say it’s just too early. In Grand Rivers, between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, OVR talked with tourist Jill Baty of Georgetown, who told them, “It’s an experimental shot, and I am not planning on taking it until we have more information.”
Phyllis Gibbs of Ballard County said she got a shot
because of how sick her son got from Covid-19.

Phyllis Gibbs of Ballard County, one of the places with a low vaccination rate, told OVR that she struggled with her decision, and finally decided to get a shot in part because of her son’s experience with the virus.

“He was so sick,” she said. “He called me. He was at the emergency room. Of course, I couldn’t have gone and seen him. He was afraid he was going to lay there and die.” She added, wiping tears form her eyes, “So if it prevents me from being that way, yeah, I’d recommend anybody getting it.”
Gibbs also had an opinion about which vaccine she wanted. She told the reporters that she only wanted the Pfizer vaccine, because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was under suspension and she had heard bad stories about side effects from the second Moderna shot.
Also, “She said some of her family is totally against the vaccines — “they’re kind of hard-headed,” she laughs — and some in her part of conservative Ballard County trust “homeopathic” treatments rather than traditional medicine,” OVR reports.
Gibbs got her vaccine at the convention center at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park, a regional vaccination site. She is one of 1.7 million Kentuckians who have gotten their first dose of a vaccine.
As of April 16, “Kentucky is leading the vaccination efforts in the Ohio Valley, as 38 percent of its residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine,” 1.1 percentage points ahead of Ohio and 3.7 points ahead of West Virginia, OVR reports. A week later, Kentucky led in full vaccination among Southern states and was second only to Virginia in percentage of residents with a first dose.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 15 of Kentucky’s 120 counties had fewer than 20% of their residents fully vaccinated through Saturday. Spencer is lowest, at 12.5%; then come Christian at 14.4% and Ballard and Lewis at 16.2%. Up from there, to 19.9%, are Casey, Todd, Jackson, Hart, Carlisle, Hickman, Rockcastle, Knox, Clay, Union and Elliott. Woodford and Franklin counties lead with around 43%.
Polling has shown that Republicans and white, evangelical Christians are the most likely to say they will not take the vaccine, OVR reports.
Baty told OVR that that finding did not surprise her. “All my Republican conservative friends are not going to be taking the vaccine, especially if they have any intelligence and do any reading for their own, go to the actual studies,” Baty said. “I can figure this out for myself. So give me the information, give me the data, and I will figure it out.”
OVR notes, “Numerous studies show that the COVID-19 vaccines approved for emergency use are safe and effective.” Scott County, where Baty lives, ranks sixth in full vaccinations in Kentucky, at 33.6%.
Army veteran Robert Martin of southeastern Missouri, who was also visiting Grand Rivers, told the reporters at OVR that the vaccines have been given “bad publicity” and that people have fallen for false rumors on social media.

“There’s too many false rumors going around about it. People who, they say they’re experts, but they’re really not,” Martin said behind a camouflage-themed mask. “People have gotten paranoid over it.”

OVR notes that public health officials have to regularly work to build trust about the vaccines, while battling falsehoods and misinformation. And the J&J pause has added another layer to the already existent vaccine hesitancy.
Mendy Blair, chief nursing officer at Baptist Health Richmond, said she respects people’s choices, but if someone is still unsure about the Covid-19 vaccines’ safety, she said it’s an opportunity for education.
“Once you have educated an individual and let them make that informed decision,” she said, “probably a good percentage of them do end up changing their mind once they understand what the vaccine is, what it does and how it can help.”
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