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There's Vaccine Drama In Arkansas, Where Rates Are Low And Everyone Has An Opinion

Health-care worker Levinna Myers decided to get her first shot during a town hall meeting about COVID-19 vaccines on July 28 in Heber Springs, Ark.
Health-care worker Levinna Myers decided to get her first shot during a town hall meeting about COVID-19 vaccines on July 28 in Heber Springs, Ark.

This weekend, 80,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines will expire in Arkansas. There simply weren't enough people in the state willing to get their jab — even though cases and deaths from the delta variant are rising there at an alarming rate.

"Prior to the vaccine, I was heartsick because people died and we couldn't help them. Now, they don't get the vaccine and we can't help them," says Tammy Kellebrew, a pharmacist who travels to rural hospitals across the state. "And so after every death, I go back to the pharmacy and I cry, and then I go back to work."

Town hall meetings are taking place throughout Arkansas to answer questions about COVID vaccines — and encourage people to sign up for one. Left: Attendees ask questions in one such meeting in Heber Springs, Ark. In attendance were Dr. Jose Romero (right), health secretary for Arkansas, and Asa Hutchinson, the state's governor.
/ Liz Sanders for NPR
Town hall meetings are taking place throughout Arkansas to answer questions about COVID vaccines — and encourage people to sign up for one. Attendees (left) ask questions in one such meeting in Heber Springs, Ark. In attendance is Dr. Jose Romero (right), health secretary for Arkansas.

"I'm angry, upset, disappointed," says Dr. Jose Romero, health secretary for Arkansas. "As a nation, we've worked so hard to get this vaccine out. And not to have them accepted by the public is difficult to understand and difficult to accept."

Arkansas has one of the country's the lowest vaccination rates

Arkansas, a largely white, rural state powered by farming, factories and rugged individualism, has one of the country's lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates. Just 36% of the state's 3 million people are fully vaccinated.

In May, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson set a modest goal of administering at least one shot to 50% of the total population by the end of July. The state has made progress — but is falling short by more than 100,000 people.

Heber Springs, Ark., a lakeside retirement and resort community in the Ozark foothills, hosted a town hall in late July about the COVID-19 vaccine. Just 36% of the state's 3 million people are fully vaccinated.
/ Liz Sanders for NPR
Heber Springs, Ark., a lakeside retirement and resort community in the Ozark foothills, hosted a town hall in late July about the COVID-19 vaccine. Just 36% of the state's 3 million people are fully vaccinated.

The result of the vaccine resistance, along with the rise of the super-spreadable delta variant, is more COVID cases and more preventable deaths. Hospitals in Arkansas are again reaching critical capacity, and staff are exhausted.

Kellebrew wore a mask with Dr. Anthony Fauci's face on it to a town hall meeting held by Hutchinson in her hometown of Dumas, a small, majority-Black city in the southeast delta region on July 27. It was one in a series of community COVID-19 conversations the governor has been holding as he travels the state pleading with Arkansans to get the shot.

"I'm a Trump supporter and I am a Republican, and I got both vaccine [doses]," Hutchinson stated at another meeting on July 28 in Heber Springs, a lakeside retirement and resort community in the Ozark foothills. "It's not about politics. It's about my health."

The staff at the Gem Theater in downtown Heber Springs, Ark., have different attitudes about vaccination. Left: Employee Rena Kelley was vaccinated in April; she said she wanted to protect her kids and her elderly parents. Right: Jewell Brackett has been hesitant but says he might still get the vaccine.
/ Liz Sanders for NPR
The staff at the Gem Theater in downtown Heber Springs, Ark., have different attitudes about vaccination. Rena Kelley (left) was vaccinated in April; she said she wanted to protect her kids and her elderly parents. Jewell Brackett has been hesitant but says he might still get the vaccine.

Rumors include the vaccine making you magnetic

Reasons for vaccine resistance are diverse and many, says Col. Robert Ator, who heads the state's vaccine distribution program. "What started out as being a logistics and distribution kind of an exercise has turned out to be psychology," he says. "Our targeting strategy has been to work down on the micro level, to work with individual communities to understand what is the barrier in that area and let us address those."

For starters, there's a tide of misinformation along with distrust of the government. Debbie Reynolds attended the town hall in Heber Springs. She has not been vaccinated, and the meeting did not sway her. "They treat you like you're just too dumb to make good decisions for your family," she says. "How many people do you see laying around on the sidewalks and in their yards dying of COVID? Nowhere."

The Dumas Family Pharmacy promotes COVID-19 vaccines in Dumas, Ark., a small city in the southeast delta region of the state.
/ Liz Sanders for NPR
The Dumas Family Pharmacy promotes COVID-19 vaccines in Dumas, Ark., a small city in the southeast delta region of the state.

The battle to get more people vaccinated often comes down to the efforts of individuals like Dollie Wilson, a 71-year-old missionary who attended the meeting in Dumas. She plans to go door to door to persuade people to get vaccines and recently canvassed at a local Walmart. "I got cursed out by one person, but I got five people to sign up for the vaccine. It was well worth it," she says.

Pharmacist Cheryl Stimson checks in Michael Haynes, who came to the Dumas Family Pharmacy for his first vaccine shot on July 27. Stimson has given more than 5,800 vaccines since the start of the pandemic.
/ Liz Sanders for NPR
Pharmacist Cheryl Stimson checks in Michael Haynes, who came to the Dumas Family Pharmacy for his first vaccine shot on July 27. Stimson has given more than 5,800 vaccines since the start of the pandemic.

Cheryl Stimson, owner of the Dumas Family Pharmacy, has personally administered more than 5,800 shots in the community at churches, schools and local events. She has been trying to get every worker vaccinated at the city's various factories.

"I've been to all but one, and I'm trying to talk them into letting me come in," she says. "The plant manager has a lot of people who are leery of taking the vaccine for all various reasons. They're afraid it'll make them sick. They're afraid that they're conforming — that somebody's making them do something they don't want to do."

Kellebrew, who administers shots at vaccination clinics across the state, says she's trying hard to calm people's specific fears.

Once, at a grocery store, a woman told her she was nervous about getting the vaccine because of a rumor on the internet that it can make you magnetic. "I said, 'Do you really believe that?' And she said, 'Well, I'm not sure.' " Kellebrew recounts. So she found a magnet in the store and demonstrated on a person to whom she had just given the shot. "The magnet kept falling off her arm, and I said, 'Is that what you needed to see?' And she said, 'Yes. I think I'll get a shot.' " Kellebrew now travels with a magnet.

Violet Mallett waits in the Dumas Family Pharmacy after receiving the vaccine.
/ Liz Sanders for NPR
Violet Mallett waits in the Dumas Family Pharmacy after receiving the vaccine. She had been worried about side effects and was relieved to feel fine after getting the shot. "I'm OK. I'm not nervous anymore. I'm ready" for my second shot, she said.

There are signs of change

Demand for vaccines has actually improved greatly in the past three weeks, according to Ator. He says the governor's town hall meetings are encouraging people — and the delta variant is scaring them. But with the rapid spread of the delta variant, now representing almost 90% of the sequenced virus cases in Arkansas, he worries it may not be enough. "My biggest concern is we're going to be a month too late, and we're going to have a lot of people suffer because of it."

State officials say that if they can find a way to punch through the hesitancy they're facing now, they could end up as a model for other slow-to-vaccinate parts of the nation as the delta variant spreads.

"There are a lot of places that may have higher vaccination rates than what we have in Arkansas, but they're certainly not high enough to suppress the spread of the delta variant," says Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, the state epidemiologist for Arkansas. "It may be just a matter of time before they get hit as well."

The audio story was produced by Barry Gordemer.

Editor's note: The 80,000 doses in Arkansas expected to expire in July was an estimate provided to NPR by the Arkansas Department of Health on July 29. After this story was published, a spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Health wrote to say that the actual wastage turned out to be much lower, with only 5,744 doses expiring in July. The spokesperson attributed the gap between the expected and actual wasted doses to more complete reporting from vaccine providers and increased vaccination rates. NPR was not able to independently verify the information.

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