Spencer County residents with ‘country spirit’ cite mistrust of government, side effects, perceived links to abortion as reasons they’re not vaccinated

Kentucky Department for Public Health map of Kentucky showing the percentage of each county's population with at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine

Spencer County stands out in an adapted screenshot of the Dept. for Public Health interactive map.

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

TAYLORSVILLE, Ky. – In 21 of Kentucky’s 120 counties one-fourth or fewer of residents are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and at 16.4%, Spencer County ranks last. In the percentage of residents who have received at least one dose of a vaccine, it ties for last with Christian County, at 20%.

Spencer stands out on the state’s vaccination-rate map; every county close to it has a much higher rate. What makes the county of about 20,000 so different?

Several reasons were clear during interviews in the parking lot of Country Mart in Taylorsville, the county’s only town, population 1,300.
They included not wanting the government telling them what to do, concerns about potential long-term effects and side effects of the vaccine, and not wanting to take a vaccine that is connected in any way to abortion.

Sean Lawson, 55, said, “I will not have baby parts injected into me.” A 55-year-old businesswoman who would not give her name said likewise, and was one of several who spoke passionately about not trusting government and disliking its instructions. “I don’t know who I can trust,” she said.

The resistance to government advice is not surprising in a county that has been Kentucky’s fastest-growing in the last 40 years because it offers a rural, lightly regulated lifestyle with easy access to the state’s largest city. A 20-year-old man who declined to give his name said he thought the independent “country spirit” of local residents played a role.
Though it’s in the Louisville metropolitan area, Spencer County’s low vaccination rate is more like those of Kentucky’s more isolated rural counties, and the reasons people give for that may be reflective of those places, too.

Doubts, beliefs and facts

The mistaken belief about “baby parts” stems from the use of fetal cell lines in the development and manufacture of the coronavirus vaccines. Experts say the cells are not the same thing as fetal tissue, Healthline reports.

According to Dr. Aleena Banerji, a member of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Covid-19 Vaccine Task Force, fetal cells were obtained from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s and have been grown as cell lines in laboratories for 30 to 40 years. They are used in vaccine research because viruses need human cells in which to replicate.

Banerji said neither Pfizer nor Moderna used fetal cell lines in development or production of its coronavirus vaccines, “so there are no fetal cells in the vaccine,” but did use them to make sure the vaccine worked before beginning clinical trials in humans. She said the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine used a fetal cell line in development and manufacturing.

Lawson said he didn’t think people wanted a coronavirus vaccine because the county’s case numbers were so low and because people aren’t worrying about dying from it, since the survival rate is 98%. He also said he doesn’t worry about the virus because he “is protected by God.”

Spencer County’s rate of new cases over the last seven days is not low, compared to the rest of Kentucky. It is 5.3 per 100,000 people, slightly higher than the statewide rate of 4.5.

Overall, however, the county’s rate has been lower than the state’s. It has had 1,636 cases, 0.36% of the state’s total, and 25 of the state’s 7,077 deaths, or 0.35%; the county has 0.45% of the state’s population.

While most of the people interviewed did not want to share their name, no one turned down the opportunity to say why they thought the county’s vaccine rate was so low and why they are part of that.

Some said they had not gotten vaccinated because they had already had the virus, which gives them natural immunity. (Just how much immunity, and how long its lasts, are unknown.) Others in this group said they were suffering lasting symptoms, even though they began several months ago, and that had made them nervous about getting a shot.

Various reasons

Several said they thought people weren’t getting vaccinated because of how fast the vaccines were developed, and because it was too new.

“It’s not old enough for me yet,” said a 37-year-old woman who said she had other health conditions to consider. “I’m not against vaccines and I don’t think anybody is against vaccines; I just think it is such a new vaccine.”

Pinkston said he has had the virus, and “I have no faith at all in a vaccine developed in six months.”

He offered many other reasons, including this: “Biblically, it is just a step away from the mark of the Beast,” the Antichrist figure in the New Testament book of Revelation. “When they start talking about how they wanted to identify people somehow once they’ve had it, with a chip or whatever. . . . It’s not there now, but it’s a step away.”

The vaccines do not contain microchips or other such devices, and Gov. Andy Beshear has said the state will not require proof of vaccination.

One 48-year-old man said he and his family had planned on getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but after it was temporarily halted because one or two in a million recipients, all women of child-bearing age, developed a peculiar type of blood clot, they decided “to give it some more time.”

Several people said they had gotten a vaccine and wish everyone else would too. “I tell everybody, get vaccinated as soon as you possibly can because people are still getting infected and people are still dying every single day,” said Clarence E Keith Jr., 71.

Spencer County is in the North Central District Health Department, which also includes Shelby, Henry and Trimble counties. In an effort to learn why people in the district are not getting vaccinated, the department is conducting an anonymous six question survey on its Facebook page. Results from the survey will be shared on social media, said Stephanie Lokits, the agency’s nursing director.

Nearly all of those interviewed in Taylorsville said the county’s low vaccination rate had nothing to do with a lack of access.

Spencer County has at least four places to get a free coronavirus vaccine, including the health department, a community health center and two pharmacies.  The health department has also hosted a drive-through clinic and Taylorsville Community Health Center is hosting one on June 12 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The vaccines are free for anyone 12 and older, and no appointment is needed.

John Shindlebower, longtime editor of The Spencer Magnet, said vaccination has not been a hot issue for his readers. He said that even after the paper published several stories about the county’s low vaccination rate, it only got one letter urging people to get vaccinated.

“We’ve not heard a lot of opinion one way or the other about the vaccine,” he said.

Nearby Franklin and Woodford counties have the highest rates of fully vaccinated people, with half of their populations fully vaccinated and 60% or more of them with at least one dose of a vaccine.  Statewide, 46.7% of Kentuckians have received at least one shot, 57% of adults have had at least one, and 38.7% are fully vaccinated.

Lokits said the health department keeps trying to find ways to encourage vaccination. Most recently, it did clinics at all the county’s public schools. It is also offering on-site vaccine clinics for groups and businesses and have distributed yard signs with fact-based messaging to quell misinformation.

Anti-misinformation signs are in English and Spanish

“We’re continuing to share information on social media about vaccinations, just trying to get the information out there to folks,” she said. “You know, there’s so many myths out there about the vaccine, and so many things that people really don’t understand.”One of those myths is that the vaccines are not safe. Lokits said it’s important for people to know that the health department has given over 13,000 doses of the vaccine and not one person has had a reaction that required hospitalization.

Lokits said they also give vaccines on Thursdays to anyone who signs up for one, but only about five people show up each week. She said some people may be getting their shots in Jefferson County, since that’s where most Spencer County residents work.

Vaccines going unused

Cassandra Yates, charge nurse at the Taylorsville Community Health Center, said it offers the vaccine to all of their patients, but has only given about 70 vaccine doses in the last three weeks and has no one on its waiting list. “People just don’t want to get it,” she said.

Yates said that when they offer the vaccine, younger patients have been less likely to take it than older ones, and those who refuse usually don’t want a flu shot either.

She said she thinks one reason people refuse is because they don’t have a mindset to get preventive vaccinations once they become adults: “They are just not going to do it.”

Yates added that the recent lifting of the state mask mandate, and plans to drop all restrictions June 11, sent a message that the pandemic is over, which makes some people less likely to get a vaccine.

Alex Shields, a pharmacist at Hometown Pharmacy, said they are giving about 10 shots a week, 515 in all, and have more than 200 doses available. “I think a lot of people in our community have made their mind up to not get it,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination report that ranks Spencer County last for full vaccination only includes people for whom a county of residence is listed. Kentucky has 116,288  vaccinated residents without a county of residence listed. The report says 93% of the state’s fully vaccinated residents are accounted for.

The pace of vaccinations is slowing; in Kentucky, the daily figure is below 10,000 and the last seven days saw 44% fewer shots than the week before.

The New York Times reports that at the current rate of vaccination, it will take Kentucky about two months to get 70% of its adults vaccinated with at least one dose of a vaccine. That’s about average among the states, but vaccination rates are lower in states to the south, and health experts worry that more contagious or deadly variants could develop in the region.

Click here for information about what medical and public-health experts say about some of the reason’s given for Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy. Click here for the CDC’s information regarding myths and facts about the Covid-19 vaccine. Click here for vaccine facts on the health department’s Facebook page.

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