Rural Oregon county struggles with vaccine hesitancy

PENDLETON, Ore. (CNN) – Several counties in Oregon are now implementing new restrictions as coronavirus cases rise. Health experts in the state are struggling to get people vaccinated. They have the supply but not the demand.

In one rural corner of Eastern Oregon, the rolling hills stretch as far as the eye can see. Umatilla County is home to less than 80,000 residents. More than 60 percent voted for the Republican Party in 2020. There’s plenty of cattle, plenty of land and, these days, plenty of vaccines.

So what’s the problem? Joe Fiumara is the director of public health for Umatilla County. He explained, “We, unfortunately, right now… we have more vaccine than we can find folks to give it to.”

Coronavirus cases are up. The county is now back in the “High Risk” category.

Chair of the Umatilla County Board of Commissioner George Murdock said, “We have plenty and enough vaccine but very reluctant citizens. Almost half of the people here are not choosing to get a vaccine.”

When asked if the county has plenty of vaccines and not enough people interested in getting the shot, Murdock replied, “Right, we’re really like all dressed up, with no place to go.”

Umatilla County Director of Public Health Joe Fiumara is on the frontlines to get locals vaccinated. He said, “We have been a hotspot for covid across the state.”

As Umatilla County’s director of public health, he understands the urgency; COVID cases are rising faster in Oregon than in any other state. But his county ranks at the bottom in vaccines administered per capita in the state.

Fiumara said, “Last week, we gave a total of about 500 doses of vaccine. Logistically, we could have given over 1,600 doses.”

Fiumara said reasons vary but mainly stem from distrust of the government on both ends of the spectrum, from hardline Republicans to migrant workers who might be undocumented.

CNN’s Lucy Kafanov asked, “How do you deal with that, as a public health official?”

“You know, I really don’t know,” Fiumara said, “We’ve seen a polarization with this vaccine that I’ve not seen with other vaccines.”

Murdock said, “It was developed under a Republican president, it’s being implemented under a Democrat president, it shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

It’s not that all residents here are complacent about the virus. Some just don’t trust the vaccine despite the FDA and CDC saying they are safe and effective.

Waitress Maranda Solis said she doesn’t want to get COVID but she and her fiance will skip the shot.

“It’s just a little new,” Solis said. “We’re pretty young and healthy and we don’t feel like we need the vaccine, yeah.”

County and state officials are trying to win the hearts and minds of vaccine-hesitant Oregonians with more public messaging.

“Boost Oregon,” a nonprofit dedicated to helping people make science-based vaccine decisions, is launching radio and TV ads across the state. But it’s too soon to tell how much those efforts could help. Cases are rising, harsh COVID restrictions are making a comeback while patience is wearing thin.

Murdock said, “We can’t stay locked down forever, but we’re kind of at a standstill because they’re not getting the shot. So, what will make things different?

And that’s a question being asked by local and state officials all across America. Vaccines are becoming increasingly available but how do you persuade reluctant Americans to get the shot?

Ending this pandemic depends on widespread vaccinations, that’s according to health experts. But eroding confidence in vaccines could sink the effort.

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