TAYLORSVILLE, Ky. – John Rogers waited months after becoming eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. It was only after talking with friends that the 66-year-old retiree from rural Spencer County, Kentucky, was persuaded to take the shot.
“They said, ‘You know, the vaccine may not be 100%, but if you get COVID, you’re in a bad shape,'” Rogers said. “You can die from it.”
Health departments have offered the vaccine at concerts, parades and fairs and have plans to make it available at back-to-school events. He has encouraged local doctors to take up the issue with patients and promoted the shots through printed material and social media.
The hope is that word of mouth will reduce fears and misconceptions about vaccines and change people’s minds, one person at a time, if necessary.
This is especially important in the area of green hills and farmland southeast of Spencer County, Louisville, where the state reports that about 22% of eligible adults are at least partially vaccinated. Public health officials there think the numbers are improving and may already be higher.
Officials in the Biden administration are increasingly turning their attention to the nearly 55 million unaffiliated adults nationwide who are considered persuasive, a group they have dubbed the “moving middle.”
Many of the people being targeted are under the age of 30, with particularly low vaccination rates. But they also include people like Rogers, who said many in his community are hesitant to take the shot because “they don’t trust the government.”
Rogers, who worked for a packaging supplier in nearby Shelbyville, said he cast doubts and is now looking forward to the heat of “going back to normal”.
Nationally, resistance to vaccination is higher in conservative and rural parts of the country. Overall, 49% of all Kentuckians have received at least one dose, compared to about 55% nationwide.
Stephanie Lokitsch, who oversees vaccination efforts in the county for the Department of Public Health, has seen vaccination slow since a peak in March, when the clinics attracted hundreds of residents. Now a weekly vaccine clinic held in the county seat of Taylorsville with an old theatre, a courthouse, some empty storefronts and some small businesses only 10 to 20 are slowly finding a way out of the pandemic.
While Kentucky has seen a decline in cases over the past seven weeks, nearly all of the confirmed infections and deaths reported in the past month have been in uninsured residents.
“I think the philosophy that we’ve really tried to go by is that every single shot we can give a person is a positive thing,” Lokitsch said. “I think it’s the kind of place where there are a lot of health departments and a lot of providers.”
Lauren Sloan, a nurse leading the vaccine effort at a community health center in Taylorsville, said she learned through conversations with her patients that misconceptions about long-term effects cause real problems.
She has found that most of the people she talks to eventually get vaccinated. The challenge, she said, is “getting people to talk to me about it in the first place.”
While appointments at the center aren’t filling as quickly as she’d like, Sloan thinks the effort to distribute information to local middle and high schools resulted in more vaccine appointments.
“I thought, you know, one way to get adults is when teens are aware of it,” Sloan said. “If your teen asks to have it, maybe that’s what encourages you a little bit too.”
Young adults well-attended at a June drive-thru clinic organized after the information push. That’s another good sign, Sloan said. Only a third of Kentuckians 18 to 29 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 83% of residents 65 and over.
Still, it can be hard to get the word out in rural counties, as some residents are not on social media or have frequent access to the Internet. Ronya Rice, the director of the district health department, said that in scattered, sparsely populated places like Spencer County, some people may not feel the need to receive the vaccine.
In addition, cases per capita in Spencer County are lower than neighboring counties and the state as a whole, which means the threat may seem remote to some.
Rogers, now fully vaccinated, is enjoying the freedom to take off his mask for good, eat at a restaurant or travel with relatives without worry.
“I waited a long time,” he said. “I should have found it long ago.”
Hudspeth Blackburn is a core member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on secret issues.