By Betsy Huber & Alan Morgan
May 26, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
With recent changes in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility authorization for adolescents, more states are beginning to lift their mask mandates and reopen their economies. But many of our rural communities run the risk of being left behind.
While access to vaccines has been an ongoing challenge in rural areas, that’s only part of the story. Some rural residents are reluctant to get vaccinated even when doses are available to them. While the decision to get vaccinated is a personal one, it is critical that policymakers at the federal, state and local levels partner with rural communities to expand vaccine access and combat hesitancy in a tailored way that answers questions and meets people where they are.
According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study, fewer rural residents compared to urban and suburban residents say they are planning or considering getting vaccinated. What’s more, 3 in 10 rural residents say they will either “definitely not” get vaccinated or will only do so if required. Fortunately, there are impactful solutions for connecting directly with people in rural communities to increase vaccine uptake and help bring a swift end to the pandemic.
State and local governments should empower and amplify the voices of primary care providers and other health care leaders to promote vaccine efficacy within their communities. Research shows that, by a wide margin, people trust their own doctor more than anyone else for accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines. Magnifying the perspectives of local health care leaders provides an opportunity to share unbiased and factual information while encouraging a healthy dialogue. And, generally speaking, people want education — not lectures — from a familiar source.
Beyond the exam room, local faith and agriculture leaders can be utilized in a similar fashion to help drive vaccine awareness and in turn, additional shots in arms.
For example, St. John Parish Hospital staff in Louisiana reached out to Black preachers and other local leaders to establish a vaccination phone line. By the following week, vaccinations among Black community members increased from 9 percent to 30 percent of total vaccinations in that area.
In Tennessee, Dr. Daniel Lewis, a COVID-19 survivor, is working one patient at a time to educate his community about the vaccines, sharing his experience in an informative and comfortable way. And Dr. Jason Lofton of Arkansas has taken a grassroots approach to sharing information with the members of his community, using various media and meeting with local representatives.
There are also practical challenges that need to be met, from lengthy distances to health care resources and issues related to weather and transportation. While rural residents initially outpaced urban and suburban residents in vaccinations, we continue to see a lag in uptake. In order to get more Americans to feel confident about rolling up their sleeves, state and local officials should expand vaccine distribution and outreach strategies to rural primary care practices and other community-based health care facilities.
Providing vaccines directly to these communities can eliminate distance as a barrier to access. In turn, this approach facilitates a more equitable distribution, empowering communities with the resources needed to combat the virus.
Additionally, vaccine distribution should go beyond traditional brick and mortar. We’ve encountered numerous examples of mobile and door-to-door vaccination clinics that reach housebound people and others in extremely remote areas.
Collaborating with churches, post offices, county fairs and other hubs to stand up vaccination clinics is also proving successful in rural communities, as these places often represent the heartbeat of an area that people rely on for sharing common experiences and the ongoings of daily life. Using these largely untapped resources in the fight against COVID-19 provides the opportunity to meet people where they are in a familiar setting, expanding our reach in the fight against hesitancy and the virus.
Just as we are encouraging the fixtures of individual communities to come together, we serve as passionate members of the COVID-19 Vaccine Education and Equity Project — to raise awareness around the importance of COVID-19 vaccination for public health, our economy and our diverse communities.
It is clear that a one-size-fits all approach is not effective in combating COVID-19. Policymakers at all levels must deliver customized messages, solutions and strategies for rural communities to increase vaccine access and combat hesitancy to ensure we put this pandemic behind us. The health and well-being of these residents and that of the nation depends on it.
Betsy Huber is the president of the National Grange, America’s oldest agriculture and rural advocacy organization.
Alan Morgan serves as CEO for the National Rural Health Association and is one of the nation’s leading experts on rural health policy.
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