‘I wish I had a concrete answer.’ Oregon confronts perplexing vaccine hesitancy as Covid-19 cases rise

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This mountainous frontier city on the Columbia River plateau romanticizes the pioneer personality of the Old West and celebrates its rugged past with one of the world’s oldest rodeos.

In rural Umatilla County, where Pendleton is located, locals take pride in the region’s deep sense of freedom, toughness and self-reliance.

It’s not entirely surprising then that residents are avoiding vaccination sites in droves, even as Oregon leads the nation in the rate of Covid-19 cases over the last two weeks and this remote northeastern county ranks at the bottom in vaccines administered per capita.

“It is still the frontier out in these hinterlands and there’s certainly a sense of individualism,” said Tracy Bosen, the vaccinated owner of Pendleton House Historic Inn and a proponent of the shot.

“As far as the political realm is concerned, Pendleton is known for being the wild, wild West. People don’t like to be told what they have to do when we have our lives and our livelihoods and families to take care of.”

Still, Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara Jr. appeared somewhat at a loss to explain the vaccine hesitancy among the county’s nearly 78,000 residents.

“I wish I had a concrete answer,” he said. “A lot of people just think they’re going to be OK. They’re either young enough, they’re healthy enough, or they stay away from the wrong people.”

The reasons for the hesitancy vary, according to Fiumara, but mainly stem from distrust of the government on both ends of the political spectrum — from conservative Republicans (more than 60 percent of county residents voted Republican) to migrant workers who might be undocumented.

“We’ve seen a polarization with this vaccine that I’ve not seen with other vaccines,” he said.

Fiumara recalled a county health investigator recently asking a resident who had been infected with Covid-19 whether they had been vaccinated.

“And the response was they had not received the vaccination because doing so would have made them a Democrat,” he said. “I’m really hoping that was said mostly in jest. But the main investigator really didn’t think that it was.”

‘A race between the variants and the vaccines’

On Friday, Gov. Kate Brown placed 15 counties in an “extreme risk” category, banning indoor dining at restaurants and limiting the number of people at gyms through the end of this week. Nine other counties, including Umatilla, were declared “high risk,” with indoor dining capacity limited, in a bid to save hundreds of lives in the coming weeks.

“What I can’t do is bring back someone’s life lost to this virus,” Brown, a Democrat, told reporters as coronavirus cases rose by more than 50% statewide in two weeks. “That’s why, as hard as this is, we must act immediately. This is truly a race between the variants and the vaccines.”

Hospitalizations have nearly doubled in the last week, according to Brown. The portion of hospitalized cases in the 18 to 34 age range has increased by almost 50%. The temporary tightening of restrictions could prevent as many as 450 hospitalizations over the next three weeks, she said.

Still, in places like Umatilla County, residents appear to be bucking vaccinations efforts.

“We unfortunately, right now, we have more vaccine than we can find folks to give it to,” Fiumara said.

At a pair of recent vaccination events, Fiumara said, only about 500 of the more than 1,600 available doses were administered.

“We just did not get that many people to show up,” he said. “And we’re hearing that from our partners in the community as well.”

Surveys show persistent resistance to vaccine in rural America

As the pace of daily vaccinations declines in the US, the Biden administration is grappling with the issue of vaccine hesitancy, particularly among conservative and rural voters in the Southeast and Mountain West. Resistance among Republicans, White evangelicals and rural residents persists even though vaccines are now widely available.

The average daily number of vaccines recently fell below 3 million, down from a high of nearly 3.4 million daily shots, according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The Biden administration has attributed the decline to vaccine hesitancy. Substantial numbers of Americans say they either have little motivation to get the vaccine or no interest in getting it at all.

A Monmouth poll last month showed that only 36% of Republicans said they had received at least one shot of the vaccine — compared with 67% of Democrats and 47% of independents — and 43% of Republicans said they would likely never get the vaccine.

Surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation have shown persistent resistance in rural America, where 3 in 10 residents said they will “definitely not” receive a Covid-19 vaccine or will do so only if required, a higher percentage than in suburban or urban areas.

‘All dressed up and no place to go’

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

He added, “We’re really like all dressed up and no place to go.”

Boost Oregon, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people make science-based vaccine decisions, has launched educational radio and TV ads across the state.

The partisan divide in coronavirus vaccinations appears to be widening.

“It was developed under a Republican president,” Murdock said. “It’s being implemented under a Democrat president. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. A lot of people think, ‘Well, we don’t know about the vaccine,’ which is ridiculous because no vaccine in history has the efficacy of this shot.”

And it’s not that all residents in Umatilla County are complacent about the virus — some just don’t trust the vaccines despite the CDC and US Food and Drug Administration assurances they are safe and effective.

“It’s just a little new,” MaRanda Solis said.

Solis, a waitress, said she doesn’t want to get Covid-19 but that she and her fiance plan on skipping the shot.

“We’re pretty young and healthy and we don’t feel like we need the vaccine,” she said. “But if I have to, I still wouldn’t want to.”

Health experts and others have long insisted that ending the pandemic depends on widespread vaccinations.

“So where do we go from here?” Murdock asked. “We can’t stay locked down forever. But we’re kind of at a standstill because they’re not getting the shot.”

This story was reported by Lucy Kafanov and Julia Jones in Pendleton, Oregon, and reported and written by Ray Sanchez in New York.