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U.S. COVID-19 Hot Spots Dominate Where Vaccination Rates Are Low

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

We're keeping an eye on coronavirus hot spots in the U.S. where case numbers and hospitalizations are increasing. They're in places with low vaccination rates. Missouri, Arkansas and all of the Gulf Coast states have vaccination rates of 40% or lower. So for the latest updates, we're going back now to member station reporters in those states who've been following this for us. Rebecca Smith is with KBIA in Missouri, and Shalina Chatlani is with the Gulf States Newsroom in New Orleans. Good morning to both of you.

REBECCA SMITH, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: Shalina, a couple of weeks ago you reported that public health officials were worried that vaccination rates in Gulf States are low and are not growing. Has that changed at all since you reported that?

CHATLANI: Well, no, that really hasn't changed much at all. But I am hearing an increased sense of urgency. Last week Mississippi health officials told people who are aged 65 and over or immunocompromised to avoid all indoor mass gatherings. Here's Thomas Dobbs, who's the state health officer in Mississippi.

THOMAS DOBBS: I don't think that we're going to have some miraculous increase in our vaccination rate over the next few weeks, so people are going to die needlessly. And since we collectively can't do what it takes to protect the state as a whole, we want to at least give individuals the best guidance so that they can survive the COVID pandemic.

PFEIFFER: The delta variant is now a big issue, of course. And is it correct that the rising numbers in the Gulf are because of the delta variant being dominant there and because it's more infectious than the initial strain of COVID?

CHATLANI: Yes, that's exactly right. It looks like we're at the beginning stages of a delta variant-driven surge in Mississippi and the Gulf. Hospitalizations there are up 36% in the last two weeks, and much of those are related to the delta variant. There have been outbreaks in summer camps, schools, churches and other places where people can gather, which means kids are getting COVID and spreading it. In Louisiana, there have been outbreaks in the last two weeks. And in Alabama, officials are also starting to note a rise in cases, particularly in rural areas that include more unvaccinated people.

PFEIFFER: It's interesting that in some states this is in the rearview mirror, but it still seems front and center where you are. Rebecca, in Missouri, where you are, does any of this sound familiar?

SMITH: Yeah, all of it. We have - cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all up and have been going up for the last month or so, especially in our rural southwest part of our state. One of the big hospital systems in the area, Mercy, saw demand for their ventilators increase so quickly that they had to send for them from hospitals in places with fewer cases. And then just a week ago, an exec from CoxHealth, another hospital system in the area, was literally begging for more staff on Twitter because their current staff is so overworked.

PFEIFFER: I noticed that one health official in Missouri tweeted that new cases there are now - and this is the quote - "sicker, younger, quicker." How's that playing out?

SMITH: Yeah, and that's just really stuck with me. They say the spread of the virus in the area is now exactly the opposite of what they saw a year ago. Here's what Katie Towns, the acting director of the Greene County Health Department, told me.

KATIE TOWNS: The average age of our case has come down into the 20s. We have seen infants in the hospital being treated for COVID. And we have had more children having contracted COVID over the past couple of weeks than we ever have. We have not necessarily seen huge increases or large increases in vaccinating people.

PFEIFFER: Earlier in the pandemic, that kind of situation might have prompted people to talk about mask mandates. Is anybody talking about that now in Missouri?

SMITH: Not really here in Missouri. There is no statewide mask mandate, and no one really expects our governor to issue one, given how politically conservative the state is. We actually have a mayor in a small town in the heart of all of this that's going on who's now facing a recall vote because he implemented a mask mandate.

PFEIFFER: And Shalina?

CHATLANI: Yeah, you know, over here in the Gulf South, mask mandates are also pretty politically polarized. And there is some disconnect with public health officials as well. When Mississippi's governor, Tate Reeves, lifted the mask mandate in March, the state health officer, Dr. Dobbs, immediately went to Twitter, urging people to please continue wearing their masks in public. And now he's urging anyone over the age of 65 to avoid indoor gatherings, regardless of their vaccination status.

PFEIFFER: I believe that both of you have reported that with vaccination being so political, it's particularly conservatives, evangelicals and white people among the least likely to get shots. Shalina, you're seeing that?

CHATLANI: Yes, that's true. But of course, there's also hesitancy to get vaccinated among Black residents, who are less likely to support conservative candidates. Most of the low-vaccination rates are concentrated in some of the most resource-poor and rural parts of the region. I spoke to Alabama health officer Scott Harris, and he says most of the uptick in cases is happening in rural southeast Alabama.

SCOTT HARRIS: These areas in the southeastern part of the state are among the lowest vaccination rates we have, so I would say I'm not too surprised that we're seeing an uptick there. The disease is widespread. I mean, it's everywhere and has been for a year and a half, you know? And so those rural areas just aren't being spared in the same way as we saw when the disease was first, you know, coming to our country.

CHATLANI: And that discussion of these rural areas and how they're not being spared is worrying, especially in the South, because it's more rural than the rest of the country. And there are huge swaths of the population that are vulnerable. And, you know, we're already seeing the impact. Just yesterday Alabama health officials said 96% of people who have died since April were unvaccinated.

PFEIFFER: Rebecca, again, where you are in Missouri, what is being done to try to convince people? Are people still - are health officials still trying? Or are they feeling like, we've reached the best numbers we can?

SMITH: They're definitely still trying and pretty desperately. You know, we're not seeing a huge uptick in vaccine numbers yet, but everyone from hospital execs to fire chiefs to health department leaders are really taking to social media, begging people to get vaccinated. You know, Towns, the county health director, says they're organizing these community-based vaccination events at breweries, fire stations, churches - I mean, really, whoever will partner with them - because they think that that personal connection is going to be the key to getting those vaccine numbers up.

PFEIFFER: And Shalina?

CHATLANI: Well, over here in Louisiana, they've already had a lottery that's millions of dollars. And the week after it was announced, the number of people initiating vaccines increased by 14%. Really, it feels like health officials across the region have tried every trick in the book. They've sent people door to door to offer vaccines, but there are still plenty of people here who believe - erroneously - that vaccines are more unsafe than COVID itself.

PFEIFFER: That's Rebecca Smith at KBIA in Missouri and Shalina Chatlani with the Gulf States Newsroom in New Orleans. Thanks for coming on.

SMITH: Thanks.

CHATLANI: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.