There are more than enough shots to go around in communities like Hartsville, Tenn. The seat of Trousdale County, a quiet town tucked in the wooded hills northeast of Nashville, has among the highest rates of vaccination in the state. But it’s stalling out with roughly a third of residents vaccinated.
On a recent weekend, the local health department had trouble filling up even half the spots for a COVID vaccination event at the high school. Down the street at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, Cris Weske, 43, stopped in to buy a can of dipping tobacco. He says he isn’t even tempted to get the COVID vaccine, no matter how widely available it is.
“Somebody like me that’s healthy, with a survival rate of 99%, I don’t need it,” he says. “I don’t want to put that toxin … I’m kind of anti-vax, period.”
Weske is wearing a “We the People” T-shirt and says the U.S. Constitution protects his choice to opt out.
Public health officials in Tennessee expected to face reluctance to getting the COVID vaccine. But they were surprised to realize that the most stubborn group might be white, largely conservative residents in rural Tennessee. Convincing this demographic has become the next challenge in a race to reach herd immunity.
National polling by NPR and Marist finds that rural, white Republicans — especially supporters of Donald Trump — are among the least likely to get a vaccine. The issue is evident in state-by-state vaccination rates, with Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee trailing the rest of the country. The White House has begun launching new initiatives targeting so-called “red states,” partnering with NASCAR, professional sports and even country music.
“We voted for Trump, but Trump’s got nothing to do with us not taking the vaccine,” says Hartsville’s Cindi Kelton, 67, as she loads dog food and milk into her minivan. “We were planning on taking it until our doctor passed away.”
More scared of the vaccine than the virus
Her physician, Dr. Raymond Fuller of Gallatin, died of COVID in late January. It’s unclear whether he was vaccinated. Either way, Kelton worried the vaccine could have played a role, despite how safe it has been shown to be in rigorous clinical trials.
Even with COPD and emphysema — lung diseases that put her at high risk of complications with COVID — she’s more scared of the vaccine than the virus.
There has been scant attention paid to batting down rumors or answering vaccine questions in many rural communities. Public health officials in Tennessee and elsewhere have been far more focused on building trust with Black and immigrant groups concentrated in urban areas.
But it’s rural communities where some leaders are actively sowing doubts. They include state legislators pushing anti-vaccine legislation and even a few pastors piping up. Greg Locke is an outspoken preacher in Mt. Juliet who peppers his sermons with mocking questions.
“People say, ‘Well, what are you going to do when they make the vaccine mandatory?’ ” he asks during the audience gathered on a Sunday morning in late March. “I’m going to tell them to take a hike like I’ve been telling them to take a hike. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Southern states, where vaccination rates are the lowest in the country, have seen ministers as key allies. But it’s almost entirely Black churches agreeing to hold town halls or vaccine events. The white pastors reached by WPLN News in Hartsville declined to weigh in, saying they were leaving the decision entirely up to their members.
‘Wait and see’
Pastor Omaràn Lee, a chaplain at Nashville General Hospital, has been working with churches in the area to promote vaccination and says the concerns in Black congregations aren’t that different from what he hears from rural, white communities.
“‘We don’t trust the government, and we don’t Joe Biden’ is what they say, right?” he says.
But Lee notes that, six months ago, Black communities were saying the same thing when President Trump was in office. “Anytime you have a marginalized person, a person who are left out, they’re going to be skeptical.”
And skepticism about the vaccine, Lee says, can be overcome if there’s an intentional effort to reach people where they are.
But in small towns like Hartsville, there hasn’t been much attention. People are less likely to hear the message from church leaders, and other communication can be more limited. There’s not much in the way of local media.
“I don’t even have a computer. I’m old school,” says Brenda Kelley, a 74-year-old widow who says she didn’t even know she was eligible to get the vaccine yet, much less that there are tons of shots available. The vaccination event at the nearby high school was advertised mostly on Facebook.
“Kinda scared to get it in a way, and in a way I want it. And my children, neither of them want it. So I don’t know,” she says.
Plus, Kelley has her own questions about whether her diabetes, while elevating her COVID risk, might cause problems with the vaccine. Health officials say it’s totally safe, but she wants to hear from her doctor.
“It’s not a never thing,” she says. Just a “wait and see.”