Rural areas are considered “critical populations” according to Oklahoma’s vaccine plan. But with a history of low vaccination rates and misinformation, it’s unclear how likely people in rural communities will get vaccinated.
Randy Hubbach, an associate professor of rural health at Oklahoma State University, said flu vaccinations are lower in rural communities — many counties in Oklahoma are under 40%.
“The flu vaccine is widely available. It's well known scientifically. We understand the precautions that need to be taken, who should get vaccinated and who should not,” Hubbach said. “So this is a tried and true vaccine. And so this should be a good indicator of what we would expect with COVID.”
Rural areas in Oklahoma have a higher mortality rate from COVID-19 than in cities — about 67.6 per 100,000 people, compared to 51.9 per 100,000 in cities, according to the OSU Center for Rural Health. There are also a record number of COVID-19 cases in rural areas, with 1,076 active cases per 100,000 in rural areas.
In order for there to be “herd immunity” from the vaccine, about 75% of Americans need to get the vaccine, Hubbach said. But misinformation through social networks could also be a big barrier.
“When we have mistrust for medical systems or for providers, mistrust of government can really impact someone's willingness to get vaccinated,” Hubbach said.
Hubbach said local leaders in rural communities could play a big role in cultivating trust in the vaccine.
Allison Seigars, executive director of Rural Health Projects, Inc., said she feels optimistic about uptake in rural communities, but feels concerned about groups that spread mistrust. In her community, a group called the Enid Freedom Fighters has protested the city of Enid’s mask mandate, which passed in early December after three attempts.
“I am seeing a lot of these same people who, for whatever reason, don't trust the vaccine,” Seigars said.
Seigars remains “cautiously optimistic” that rural communities will take the vaccine, and said she has seen efforts from local leaders to ensure that the vaccine is safe and can be trusted.
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