Covid-19 Vaccination Rates Lag Nearly 20% in Rural America

Reacting to the numbers announced from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one stakeholder said that vaccine messaging, “in a rural context, has to begin at the local level.” 

County classification data for where vaccinated people received their first does, between December 14, 2020, and April 10, 2021. (Source: CDC via Courthouse News)

(CN) — Researchers announced an astonishing gap Tuesday between the number of adults vaccinated against Covid-19 in rural counties as compared with their urban counterparts. 

Collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the data on vaccinated people aged 18 and older in 49 states and Washington, D.C., shows that 39% of adults in rural counties were vaccinated as of April 10, compared with about 46% of adults in urban counties. CDC officials said those trends held true around the country, including throughout various age groups and across genders.

“Disparities in Covid-19 vaccination access and coverage between urban and rural communities can hinder progress toward ending the pandemic,” a summary included with the CDC report warns.

Addressing the study during a Covid-19 briefing on Tuesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency is doing everything it can to “narrow these differences and make sure that vaccine coverage is equitable, regardless of whether you live in rural or urban areas.” 

Since Covid-19 vaccines first became available, public health experts have discussed how to target more remote areas, particularly given cold-chain-storage issues that can hinder delivery of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, stored at freezing temperatures. 

South Carolina — one of the states in the lowest tier for doses administered per 100,000 people — has been working to address variations in Covid-19 vaccination across counties and regions. 

Rates remain higher in coastal areas, and lower in rural counties, state health officials told Courthouse News in early May. 

“To remedy this, we’ve been partnering with local churches and groups in those areas and conducting mobile clinics for those who don’t have adequate transportation, among other efforts,” said Derrek Asberry, public information officer for the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control. “We hope our outreach efforts to those lesser vaccinated areas will help us reach our goals.”

At the national level, the CDC’s focus is disseminating information, partnering with trusted community members, and, as Walensky put it, “meeting people where they are — wherever they are.” She cited a recent vaccination effort at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, along with members of the state’s health department and the National Guard. 

In addition to access issues, vaccine hesitancy plays a role in lower rural vaccination rates, said Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association. 

That’s due, at least in part, to a lack of communication that’s appropriate for getting rural Americans to roll up their sleeves. 

“The messaging to date has simply been wrong, at a national level, for rural America,” Morgan said during a phone interview. 

Catoosa County Coroner James Spurling delivers a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a drive-thru facility in Ringgold, Ga., on March 31, 2021. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

A top-down approach — expecting people will get vaccinated because federal health officials recommend that everyone do so — is less likely to be successful than working with local health care systems, faith leaders and the agricultural community, Morgan said. 

“In a rural context, this has to begin at the local level,” he said. 

Focusing on how people getting vaccinated can keep their families and friends safe, and businesses open, is more likely to sway people toward vaccination. 

“What doesn’t work in a rural context,” Morgan said, “is hearing from the CDC what they can and can’t do, or hearing from politicians and what they can and can’t do.” 

In recent weeks, the United States has seen a leveling off of demand for Covid-19 vaccination. 

Still, experts say that President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70% of Americans vaccinated against the coronavirus by July 4 is within reach. As it stands, 44% of people age 12 and older — those now eligible for a vaccine — are fully vaccinated. 

Among adults ages 18 and up, the number is north of 47%, and nearly 60% have received at least one dose.

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