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Montana County Encourages Residents To Get COVID-19 Vaccinations

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The number of Americans who say they will not take a COVID-19 vaccine is twice as high in rural areas than elsewhere. The reluctance is widespread enough to raise questions about whether this country can reach herd immunity. But some people are working to persuade. Here's Aaron Bolton of Montana Public Radio.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Libby is a small town in northwest Montana. Lincoln County public health manager Jen McCully is walking downtown with a small cooler filled with syringes of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

JEN MCCULLY: We have complimentary COVID vaccine here. You want one? Anybody want one?

BOLTON: McCully steps inside Scheer Bros. Hobbies, looking for people willing to take a handful of leftover vaccines from her weekly clinic. Standing behind the front desk, owner Steven Scheer says he's been hesitant about getting a shot because he's already had COVID-19.

STEVEN SCHEER: I've always - it's - you know, I've always been kind of on edge about it just 'cause I don't want to get sick again kind of thing, you know? It's pretty much just me just worrying about nothing (laughter).

BOLTON: After a quick conversation, the 32-year-old agrees to get a shot right inside his store.

SCHEER: Let me go Pfizer.

BOLTON: She sticks on a Band-Aid and reminds him to check back for his second shot. McCully says demand for vaccines has fallen dramatically in recent weeks, even though just a third of Lincoln County's population has received at least one dose. She says some people will get the shot once their questions are answered. And others just want it to be convenient.

MCCULLY: If we go to the grocery store, we have people that are like, oh, yeah, I've been meaning to try to get in but just haven't. So yeah, I'll take it.

BOLTON: Survey data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that at least a quarter of Montana's population is hesitant about getting COVID vaccines, one of the highest rates in the nation. In fact, the majority of counties are asking for fewer doses week to week as shots stock up in freezers.

Ashley Kirzinger with the Kaiser Family Foundation says a lot of rural states are battling this problem.

ASHLEY KIRZINGER: There are specific groups, regardless of where you live, that are the most vaccine resistant. They tend to be Republicans, white evangelicals. And rural America just has a larger share of them in their population.

BOLTON: One in 5 rural Americans say they definitely won't take a COVID vaccine. And Kirzinger says survey data shows it will be nearly impossible to sway them. But she adds there is still progress to be made with the roughly 15% of the rural population that's still on the fence.

KIRZINGER: As they've seen few people get side effects, they've moved from that wait and see to now they're getting vaccinated. So that's really encouraging.

BOLTON: Back at the hobby shop in Libby, customer William Jennings says he considers himself to be a part of that wait-and-see group. But the 37-year-old has been thinking about getting vaccinated more as he's resurrected plans from last year to visit family.

WILLIAM JENNINGS: We're going to Eugene, Ore., to go visit my brother and sister. And he's coming from Philadelphia.

BOLTON: He says having the shot brought to him made the choice to take it easy.

JENNINGS: It's free. Why not? (Laughter) Yeah. Is it free?

MCCULLY: It's free.

(LAUGHTER)

JENNINGS: Right?

BOLTON: Many health officials across Montana say vaccine hesitancy will likely stand in the way of reaching herd immunity. That's why it's so important to vaccinate people like Jennings - one shot at a time.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton, reporting from Libby, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRO'S "LEVEL 2 SMALL BATS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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