There are parts of Tennessee where COVID has all but disappeared, despite vaccination rates that are among the lowest in the nation.
In the town of Linden, Tennessee, the nonprofit clinic is down to giving the COVID vaccine one day a week. The hope is that at least 10 people will sign up so they can use up an entire Moderna vial and not waste any doses, since they have to be thrown out after a day.
“It’s just gradually gotten worse since we started,” says Kirstie Allen, who oversees vaccinations at the federally subsidized clinic. “Our first couple of weeks, we had people booked. Then after that, we had people start no-showing. We had a waiting list. People on the waiting list didn’t want to come.”
Like many rural counties in the South, Perry County may never get to President Biden’s July 4 goal of 70% vaccination. It’s still has 70% of residents unvaccinated. Some projections show southern states will take another six months or a year to reach the goal.
The holdouts include Allen herself. It’s an admission she rarely makes while sticking the needle in her neighbors, who regularly tell her they’re not so sure about the shot, even as they get it.
“I think I’ll get it,” she says. “But I wanted to wait and see how the research was going to go and see how people are getting it react.”
She knows firsthand how dangerous COVID is. She caught it along with several family members gathered at a funeral in January.
But the risk seems to have moved on. Perry County has essentially no new cases, every day.
That may be because places like Perry County have a sizable share of the population that has recovered from COVID.
“Even though our vaccine rates may not be as high as other states, the combination of vaccine and natural immunity here has caused our cases to plummet,” says Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner.
In Perry County, at least one in eight residents has recovered from COVID. State health officials assume the figure may be higher since many people went untested during the worst of the pandemic in December.
Natural immunity by recovering from COVID is highly variable depending on the severity of someone’s sickness, according to the latest studies, and the protection may not last as long as the vaccine does. So epidemiologists in the Tennessee Department of Health aren’t sure how much credit to give immunity acquired through infection. But it’s helping more than expected, Piercey says.
“Yes, I want people to get vaccinated,” Piercey says. “But what I really want at the end of the day is for this pandemic to go away… And we’re pretty close to getting there.”
Piercey says she figures COVID will never go away completely, and the current level of infection may be as good as it gets. But, she says, that’s something the state can manage.
Holdouts come around
While vaccinations in communities like Linden have slowed to a crawl, they haven’t stopped.
Laurel Grant, 57, finally took the jab this month. She had been worried about side-effects.
“But everybody I know has done real good, just maybe a little fever or a little tiredness,” she says.
It helped that the Pilot Flying J truck stop near Lobelville where she works offered a $75 bonus to anyone fully vaccinated.
“There’s a few down there at work who are like, ‘I’m not going to get it,'” she says. “I’m like, ‘Yes, you are. Like it or not.’ “