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The Wide Variation Of COVID-19 Vaccination Rates Aren't A Function Of County Responses

Eva Grimm was one of 33 people to be vaccinated last week at a pop-up vaccine clinic hosted by the Indiana State Department of Health in Franklin County. (Adam Pinsker, WFIU/WTIU News)

As cases of the more contagious delta variant continue to rise, health officials are going all in on vaccinating vulnerable populations.  

In some counties, the results are better than others. Most of the wide variation can be attributed to demographics. 

For Franklin County residents, this year’s county fair is a dash of normal after 18 months of pandemic isolation and stress.

But for local health officials in one of Indiana’s least vaccinated counties, returning to pre-pandemic normal isn’t without concern.

“This is the first big gathering in our county since that, and everybody is anxious to get out and have fun,” Angela Ruther, Franklin County’s health department supervisor said.

But she called emerging variants—especially the more contagious delta variant “very worrisome.”

a county fair in Indiana
Masks were scarece as vistors packed the Franklin County Fair last week. (Brock E.W. Turner, WFIU/WTIU News)

That’s why the Franklin County Health Department partnered with the state’s department of health to host a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the county fair.

Spanning multiple days, the pop-up clinic vaccinated 33 people—a success health officials say—as much of the demand for vaccines has dried up.

Officials say each shot provides more protection for a county that has struggled to reach residents. One of them was Eva Grimm.

“I’m pretty young, I’m very healthy, but, like I said, I do know people that are at high risk—including my roommate from college,” Grimm said after her post shot 15-minute wait was over.  “It was more about doing it so that I don’t put them at risk than for me.”

Grimm says she waited to be vaccinated because she caught COVID-19 just before she was eligible. While the Purdue University student had only mild symptoms, she was still eager to receive her vaccine.

Health officials hope more lower risk residents will adopt the same logic, but they note in higher risk populations the stakes are greater.

“The reality is we can also do something for the people who are most at risk,” Dr. Tomas Huth, the vice president of medical affairs at Reid Health in Richmond.

Franklin County is one of just a handful in the state without a hospital. Many sick patients end up traveling north to Richmond for care. Huth believes the highest risk groups have shifted from earlier in the pandemic.

The most at-risk patients are younger now because their vaccine uptake is lower.

“It’s the people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are vaccinating under 50 percent,” he said. “If you were to ask me what’s the one thing we can do to basically stop hospitalizations today, it would be to vaccinate everybody above age 40—especially if they are diabetic and overweight because those are the commonalities.”

Data from across the state paint the same picture. A greater number of Hoosiers aged 70+ are vaccinated, while 40 to 60 year old’s are less likely to have received the vaccine.

More than half of Hoosiers aged 40 – 49 remain unvaccinated.

Different County, Same Problem

Even in counties where rates are higher, the story is the same. Monroe County is one of the most vaccinated counties in the state. 

While its rate is lower than what Health Department administrator Penny Caudill would like, she says she’s unsure why county rates vary so widely.

“I wish that I had the exact answer and reason for that, but I don’t,” she admits. “Some of it is each community’s different, and I don’t know if that has to do with education or where people fall just in terms of regular [non-COVID] vaccinations.”

All experts interviewed believe the problems aren’t rooted in an individual county’s public health response, rather the population’s trust.

“I do think misinformation and mistrust—whether its mistrust of government, whether its mistrust of media, or the CDC, or whatever report it might be I think there is mistrust,” Caudill said.

And Huth agrees.

“The problem is a generalized mistrust—a crisis of trust—in our scientific enterprises, our government and policymaking enterprises because they haven’t always been perfect.”

While the number of vaccines administered in future clinics will likely pale in comparison to earlier ones, health officials agree every shot is a step, however small, in the right direction.

This is the second of two stories on Indiana's public health response to the delta variant.  Read the first here.

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