Bridging the gap: Getting past vaccine hesitancy in rural areas
While many states are seeing COVID-19 cases level off or even decrease, that’s not happening everywhere, particularly in more rural areas. That’s raising concerns among health care leaders who say many people wrongly believe they no longer have to worry about the pandemic.
The latest information about vaccine hesitancy from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) comes from a study of vaccinations administered during December through April. Vaccine coverage was lower in rural counties (38.9%) than in urban counties (45.7%). A similar poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found vaccine hesitancy was highest in rural counties with 21% of rural residents stating they would “definitely not” get a vaccine compared with 10% of urban residents.
Some researchers point to a perception of low risk of COVID-19 coupled with perception of low risk for severe disease — particularly among young people — for fueling complacency.
OSF HealthCare Occupational Health physician Robert Ayers, MD, says the most recent data he’s seen is the opposite – it shows a greater percentage of people who are dying now are in their 30s and 40s. He understands no one wants to feel coerced into getting the vaccine, but he says now is the time to get concerns addressed and questions answered.
“Where you normally go to get your health care, and where you normally go and ask the nurse or the provider there your health questions, where you are more comfortable there and in a more private setting on a one-on-one basis, kind of talking about concerns; that is where the next phase of this is going to go.”
OSF HealthCare has tried to bridge vaccine access in rural communities by working with schools to help vaccinate students and parents. But with most schools now on summer break, the next phase will encourage using the trusted relationship between providers and their patients.
A recent CDC study showed 86% of rural residents report they trust their own health care providers for information about COVID-19 vaccines. OSF HealthCare offers COVID-19 vaccinations in rural health clinics and individuals can schedule their appointment by going to osfhealthcare.org/vaccine. This option offers people flexibility to choose their brand of vaccine, location, date, time, etc.
For people who want to access the vaccine through their primary care provider, they’ll be able to ask questions and get vaccinated during an existing appointment. In the meantime, Dr. Ayers suggests OSF patients can use their OSF MyChart account to ask questions of their provider. He believes these two-way exchanges can move the needle on rural vaccine hesitancy.
“If I have some sort of lingering question, try and find someone you can trust. That might be part of the success if we start giving it (the vaccine) out in physician offices, if my doctor tells me I’m going to take it, that’s all I was waiting for, and we’ve seen that in some of our folks in our office area.”
Vaccine Safety is Well Researched and Documented
Dr. Ayers talks regularly with hesitant patients, including three he’s spoken with in recent weeks. He says they’re worried about safety despite the fact 318 million shots have been given in the U.S. without significant negative impacts that can be tied to the vaccine.
“We’ve given out an awful lot of vaccines (to employees) and we only had one person call in the next day that they couldn’t come into work, and that was after their booster (second shot), so we’re not seeing the side effects that are that significant, especially when you compare it to getting COVID.”
Dr. Ayers says the safety data is there. The mRNA vaccines do their work and leave the body within weeks, so long-lasting impacts should not be a concern. Conversely, he stresses the virus that causes COVID-19 is so indiscriminate, there’s no way of knowing the impact it’ll have on anyone. He has seen perfectly healthy young people die from the infection and he has witnessed the impact the virus has had on fellow Mission Partners (employees) in his role as an OSF occupational health physician.
“It’s also a disease we can’t predict who is going to be the one with the long COVID symptoms. We’ve had Mission Partners who were healthy, never missed work, and they’re still having problems months down the road. If you ever asked them about a vaccine, they would have loved to have had a vaccine,” he explains, referencing health care workers who were infected before COVID-19 vaccines were available.
The more people who receive the COVID-19 vaccines the sooner vulnerable people can feel safe being out among others. He fears a false sense of security could lead many unvaccinated individuals to be infected with the more easily spread variants. This poses the risk of another surge that will overwhelm health care providers and put us back into a world of mitigation and isolation being seen in other countries.
Dr. Ayers stresses, “We’ve been through that. We know what it’s like. I just think we all need to realize we’re all in this together, let’s all work together and be respectful of each other and get this behind us.”