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Health, Science, Environment

Agriculture, Health And Business Groups Work To Boost Rural COVID-19 Vaccination Rates

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Jonathan Ahl
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri National Guard members, along with the Crawford County Health Department and local hospital employees, dispense COVID-19 vaccines during a March event in Cuba, Missouri.

President Joe Biden wants the country to be 70% vaccinated from COVID-19 by July 1, but rural areas are making far less progress than urban centers toward that goal.

Agriculture, business and health care groups addressed the topic of improving rural vaccination rates during a virtual National Rural Business Summit earlier this month to share ideas and strategies.

In Missouri, 42% of St. Louis and 50% of St. Louis County residents 18 and older are fully vaccinated. That compares to much lower rates in rural counties, such as 24% in Dent County and 26% in Crawford County. Kansas City’s Jackson County is at 45%. Statewide, 45% of residents 18 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We know there are challenges with reaching rural communities based on CDC analysis and Kaiser Family Foundation studies,” said Dr. Bechara Choucair, White House COVID Response Team vaccinations coordinator.

The message of the summit’s presenters was that health officials and vaccine advocates should change the way they talk about the vaccine.

“Instead of talking about vaccine hesitancy, we need to be talking about vaccine confidence,” said Dirk Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor and the chair of the COVID Collaborative. “We need to shift the focus.”

The consortium of groups working on the effort also includes the American Farm Bureau Federation, Center for Rural Strategies, Rural America Chamber of Commerce, National League of Cities and the National Rural Health Association.

They have developed a set of online tools to help people and organizations better reach rural residents. That includes agriculture groups appealing to farmers and the knowledge they already have.

“We all understand as farmers and ranchers that herd immunity really works,” American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said. “We’re not scared to take a new vaccine to our herds across the country because we know the science is behind it.”

The group also believes business leaders with a strong presence in rural areas can be hugely influential.

“It falls upon us as business leaders to talk to our employees,” National Rural Health Association CEO Alan Morgan said. “We need to ask them: ‘Have you gotten vaccinated? Do you have transportation to get vaccinated? And can I give you a couple hours off so you can get that and keep our business safe?’”

All of the group's member organizations say vaccination needs to be a choice, not a mandate. But they are also hoping better information and communication strategies will help people decide to get vaccinated.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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