The Biden administration can finally ship large quantities of coronavirus shots into the American heartland, where health officials are encountering a reservoir of vaccine skepticism among rural Americans who’ve adopted former President Donald Trump’s denial of a virus battering their communities.
If a critical mass of people don’t accept Covid-19 vaccines, the country won’t achieve “herd immunity.” When there was just a trickle of vaccines, hesitancy didn’t matter as much because plenty of people were clamoring for the scarce shots. Now that the supply is ramping up, the challenge is to overcome fear, distrust and outright antagonism to the new vaccines shared by some groups in large numbers. That’s the path to save lives, slow the emergence of new virus variants, end the stress on the health care system and restore the economy.
Because the pandemic hit Black and brown communities so hard — at the same time as a broad and disruptive American awakening over race — much of the focus has been on getting the shots to minority communities and addressing their long distrust of a health care system that at times has ignored and abused them.
But polls have found that some of the deepest opposition to vaccines is among rural whites and Republicans, including some who say the risk of Covid-19 has been exaggerated. One coalition of health groups and nonprofits has even engaged a prominent GOP pollster and wordsmith to help them break through with pro-vaccine messages.
But the damage from months of mixed messaging about the virus’s severity, whether from Trump world or social media, has been done, say public health experts and health care workers administering shots in rural America.
Of course, rural America isn’t monolithic — it isn’t all white, Republican and poor. It’s found in pockets of the bluest states, as well as vast stretches of the red ones. But reaching the most vaccine skeptical in those communities — which polls regularly find are white, Republican and under 50 — will be a messaging challenge that helps determine the pandemic’s trajectory in the coming weeks and months.
Not all vaccine fears are identical. People who are worried about side effects for instance — a common theme — can be reassured, and there are already signs that such apprehension is dissipating as they watch friends and family get vaccinated without injury. But people who just don’t believe that the virus is a threat, or who viscerally oppose all vaccines, are a lot tougher. Others may be inclined to get vaccinated but aren’t willing to travel long distances for it.
“Vaccine hesitancy comes in a whole lot of different flavors,” said Alabama’s top health official, Scott Harris. His team is currently focused on the historically underserved rural “Black Belt” counties in southern Alabama but is planning a broader multi-media campaign aimed at building confidence in all demographic groups.
Given the high degree of hesitancy among Republicans and rural Americans, a coalition of health groups and foundations turned to Frank Luntz, a prominent GOP pollster and message crafter. He found that lecturing, shaming or even appealing to abstract notions of doing what’s right doesn’t change minds. What resonated is emphasizing how vaccines can make people and their loved ones safe — and how it can help life return to normal.
Kaiser’s most recent survey last month detected an encouraging shift out of the “wait and see” group. Those reporting they were “eager” to get vaccinated had risen to 55 percent, up from 34 percent from December.
But there was scant movement among the hard-line “no” groups. For instance, the share of Republicans who said they would not get a shot under any circumstances, or only if forced to for work, dipped ever so slightly, from 24 percent to 22.
Idiocy and insanity now define the right.