In rural Minnesota, tackling vaccine hesitancy one community at a time
Elaine and Florian Fautsch could have been vaccinated against COVID-19 a few months ago.
The Sauk Rapids couple are around 80 years old, so they were among the first groups to be eligible, as people their age are most at risk of serious illness or death from the virus.
They took the COVID-19 threat seriously. But they didn’t venture out of the house much during the pandemic, so they didn’t feel the urgency to get the shot.
“I was sort of waiting to see how it turned out at the start,” said Elaine Fautsch. “Being that we’re that age, we just thought, ‘Well, we’ll just wait and see if it’s safe.’ “
“We stretched it out as long as possible,” said Florian Fautsch.
This reluctance to get vaccinated is common in rural Minnesota. As of April 20, only 32% of eligible residents of Benton County, where the Fautsches live, had received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health. This is one of the lowest percentages of any county in Minnesota, well below the statewide number of 53 percent.
Just two months ago, healthcare providers struggled to secure enough precious vaccine vials to quench the seemingly limitless demand statewide. The state, in turn, has implemented a phased distribution rollout to ensure that the most vulnerable populations can get it. And immunity hungry people spent hours scouring drugstore websites for appointments and traveling hundreds of miles to get one of the few doses.
But as this problem has eased with an increase in available vaccines, a new one has emerged to replace it.
“We are at this juncture where in some communities supply is no longer the problem,” said Carrie Henning-Smith, deputy director of the Center for Rural Health Research at the University of Minnesota. “It’s really about demand, and getting people to want to be vaccinated.”
So now, public health officials in Minnesota and across the country are trying more creative ways to get people like the Fautsches to get vaccinated. If they fail, the levels may be below the 70-80% vaccination rate they deem necessary to achieve herd immunity, at which point so many people are protected that the virus is unlikely to spread.
Without herd immunity, the virus will continue to circulate and may mutate in a way that makes vaccines less effective over time. This could lead to more infections, deaths and disruption.
Nationally, a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found about 1 in 5 rural residents say they will definitely not be vaccinated against COVID-19. That number has not changed much in recent months, although more than half of Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with a few cases of serious side effects reported.
Henning-Smith said reluctance to vaccinate is higher among people with more conservative political beliefs and evangelical Christians, who disproportionately live in rural areas. About 65% of voters in Benton County voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020.
The Republican president has repeatedly downplayed the severity of COVID-19 during his last year in office, mistakenly likening it to the flu, resisting the use of masks, promoting quack remedies – and even contracting the disease from him -even.
Henning-Smith said the confused messages from political leaders in the Trump administration and beyond have undoubtedly influenced people’s attitudes.
“We’ve also seen COVID be really politicized, really in a very bad way,” she said. “As COVID moved across the country and moved into rural areas, we were receiving very mixed messages.”
People with conservative political beliefs were more likely to accept the idea that the coronavirus was not a real threat and that they were not in danger, Henning-Smith said.
“This reasoning that COVID is not that serious,” she said, “leads people to think that they don’t need to be vaccinated, without thinking of it as a collective responsibility.”
Henning-Smith fears this attitude will prolong the pandemic.
“I think that leaves us with pockets of places, especially the rural areas of the state and the country, where COVID is still going to be able to spread,” she said.
Health officials say there are other reasons people in rural areas may not get vaccinated, including lack of transportation, access to technology to book online appointments and – as was the case with Florian and Elaine Fautsch – concerns about the safety of the vaccine.
Over the months, Elaine Fautsch grew tired of depending on her daughter for her shopping. Finally, in early April, she went to a clinic in St. Cloud to receive her first dose of the vaccine. But Florian Fautsch doesn’t like going to the doctor.
So a few days later, the family found a place where he was more comfortable to get the shot. Elaine Fautsch took her husband to Foley, a rural farming town a 20-minute drive from their home in Sauk Rapids.
He received his photo in a room with a thick red carpet and a wooden cross hanging on the wall. For a few hours, Foley’s First Presbyterian Church was transformed into a mobile vaccination clinic run by CentraCare, the region’s main healthcare provider.
“When they’ve been here before, it was a very comfortable place,” said their daughter, Jill Emery, who is a member of the church. “It’s not the antiseptic smell, the sights, etc., that a hospital or even a doctor’s office. “
Health officials say providing vaccines in familiar and trusted locations could help their efforts to widely distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, especially in areas of the state where vaccine reluctance is greater .
Debbie Corrigan, CentraCare nurse and vaccinator, is also a long-time member of the tight-knit First Presbyterian congregation, where large families sometimes occupy three or four benches.
Corrigan said she knows quite a few people who are still not convinced they want the vaccine, but said that seems to be changing. The 50 immunization appointments available at the church were filled in a few days.
“If there are people out there who might be on the verge of getting vaccinated, maybe it’s just this piece that engages them and brings them to us,” Corrigan said.
Beverly Brock, the only pastor at the 130-member church, said some in her congregation were still worried about getting the vaccine.
“Some people have made it clear that they don’t trust him and won’t get it, and it’s a mixed problem within families,” she said. “I tell them, ‘I got mine. I feel safe about it. “
Health officials say this type of testimony is essential in encouraging more people to get vaccinated – especially in small towns, where the voice of a neighbor or trusted member of the community is very important. weight.
CentraCare uses a similar approach to reach other populations who might be less likely to receive the vaccine, such as communities of color. The health care provider recently hosted a vaccination event at a mosque in St. Cloud just before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“I don’t want to pressure people to get the vaccine, if it’s really their fundamental belief that they’ll never get it. It’s their right, absolutely, ”said Ashley Jude, who coordinates the CentraCare mobile immunization team. “But if there are people who are open-minded enough or have questions, I’m not the type to say, ‘let’s give up’.”
The data in these charts is based on cumulative totals from the Minnesota Department of Health released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at Department of Health website.
The coronavirus is transmitted by respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, in the same way that the flu can be spread.
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