Rural Churches and COVID Vaccinations

October 4th, 2021

Rural Churches and Covid Vaccinations

The COVID19 death rate in rural communities is now double that of urban places. Across rural America, numerous groups have tried to find creative ways to help boost the rural vaccination rate, which lags dangerously behind urban places. The center that I run is part of that effort, working closely with our campus clinic to boost the vaccination rates in our county by offering pop-up clinics, education sessions, and advertisements to remind people that the vaccine is safe, effective, and free.

            Rural churches are essential to leading meaningful change in rural communities. They are some of the few permanent institutions in communities, they are trusted, and they contain a large cross-section of the community. Rural churches can leverage this to the benefit of their communities. Improving the vaccination rate of their community – and thereby saving lives – is no different. 

            To do this effectively we need a better understanding of the reasons why people in rural communities are less likely to get vaccinated, and how to overcome those challenges. An obvious caricature circulates about people in rural areas who refuse to get the vaccine. The dominant narrative, built on myths about rural places, paints the rural unvaccinated as people entrenched in a political ideology, people who are uneducated, or people who do not take COVID19 seriously. 

            While a few people might fit those narratives, most of the people and indeed most of the studies do not reflect those caricatures. For example, in Mississippi, while less than half of the population is fully vaccinated (about 50% have had at least one dose), 73% of the adult population intends to get the vaccination. So what accounts for that disparity between intent and action? 

            The causes are complex. First, the pandemic exposed the problems with rural access to healthcare. There are fewer primary care providers, fewer hospitals, fewer pharmacies, and significant populations of underinsured people. While studies show that people might be more likely to get the vaccine if their primary care provider encouraged them to do so, this is of little consequence if your primary point of medical care is an emergency room or urgent care facility, which may not be located in your town. Where can people turn to get reliable information about the vaccines? Even if they have that information, for many rural people, actually getting the vaccine becomes a burdensome task. 

            Rural minority populations are particularly harmed by this limited access. In the South, many majority Black counties are located in rural areas. These counties almost always lack access to high-quality healthcare. Furthermore, the legacy of drug trial abuses in Black communities, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, has created suspicions around the US healthcare system. Limited access and past abuse suggests why in the Mississippi study 80 percent of White respondents intended to be vaccinated, but only 56% of the Black respondents intended to receive the vaccine. 

           

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 This lack of access and distrust creates an environment rife for misinformation. When people stop by our pop-up clinics to ask questions, the questions are typically grounded in a rumor they heard or the experiences of someone they know. I hear people ask our nurse practitioner about why, if they’ve already had the virus, they would need to get the vaccine; shouldn’t they have natural immunity? They express uncertainty about the process by which the vaccines received emergency use authorization. How did it go so quickly, when researchers have been working for decades on other diseases? They ask about potential side effects, like the occasional report of someone having an allergic reaction to the vaccine. 

            Often, their questions are practical. We see people that are underinsured or uninsured and aren’t aware that the vaccine is free. We see people confused by the constant reports about which vaccine offers more protection. People approach the vaccine clinic with multiple health issues, but they know it will be months before they see their specialist – whose office is more than an hour away, and they want to wait to talk to them about the vaccine. We see people afraid that they can’t afford to miss a day off work if they have one of the temporary side effects of the vaccine. 

            These questions don't come from people who are ignorant or making decisions steeped in politics. The questions come from people who are legitimately trying to figure out how to make the best choice possible with limited, and often misleading information. They are people scared, tired, and wanting to move forward. Unfairly, rural people are scapegoated on social media and in news reports, because it’s easier to scapegoat them than to deal with the crumbling healthcare infrastructure in rural communities. 

            So how can rural churches, our connectional denominational system, and networked churches respond? First, provide accurate information to your community, and learn the best ways to communicate it. Fortunately, the National Rural Health Association has created a toolkit to talk about the vaccine, with accurate information and talking points to help you talk about the vaccine to your community. The toolkit even includes specific resources for rural faith-leaders. 

            Second, ask your county health department about coordinating a vaccination clinic with an existing program that your church offers. Pairing vaccination efforts with programs such as food pantries eliminates barriers that might otherwise prevent someone from getting the vaccine. The more convenient the vaccine is, the more likely people are to get it. Even if the health department is not able to offer the vaccines onsite, find out if they can provide a nurse or healthcare worker to answer questions and provide reliable information. 

            Finally, tell your story about getting vaccinated. At one of our recent clinics, one of the women I knew from church came by to ask questions. After about 20 minutes of debating whether or not to get the vaccine, she turned to me. 

            “What do you think I should do?”

            “I can’t give you medical advice,” I told her, “But I got the vaccine, and I’m glad I did.” 

            Ultimately, what persuaded her wasn’t the science; it was the fact that someone she knew was telling her it was ok. Churches remain some of the most trusted places in rural communities. By talking openly about our stories, we can provide a meaningful counter to the pervasive third-hand rumors that flow throughout our rural places. 

            Rural churches are important to the vibrancy and vitality of their communities. We need them to recognize the meaningful role to play in keeping our communities safe and healthy. In order to do that, our rural church leaders must have a better understanding of the issues underneath rural vaccine hesitancy. Once they have that, they can begin to help their communities put this pandemic behind them. 

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