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Arkansas' Governor Pleads With Residents To Get The COVID-19 Vaccine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This weekend, authorities in Arkansas expect to throw away 80,000 doses of COVID vaccines. The doses reached their expiration dates without anybody taking them. Many people in Arkansas don't want them, even though Arkansas faces an alarming increase in cases and deaths from the delta variant and even though the Republican governor has been urging people to get their shots. NPR's Pien Huang reports on the struggle.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Tammy Kellebrew is a pharmacist in Arkansas. She travels to rural hospitals to give out the vaccine. A few months ago, it almost seemed like the pandemic was over.

TAMMY KELLEBREW: From March until about the beginning of June, it was nice and quiet and peaceful. I didn't have any COVID patients in my facilities.

HUANG: Then came the delta variant.

KELLEBREW: And then in June, it started to explode again. And prior to the vaccine - I can't talk - prior to the vaccine, I was heartsick because people died, and we couldn't help them. And now they don't get the vaccine; we can't help them. And so after every death, I go back to the pharmacy, and I cry. And then I come back to work.

HUANG: Kellebrew's here at the community center in Dumas, Ark. It's a small city in the Southeast Delta region with farms and factories. It's a majority-Black city in a very white state. And it's where Asa Hutchinson, the governor of Arkansas, is holding a town hall meeting about the rapid rise in coronavirus cases.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASA HUTCHINSON: On June 7, we had right at 1,600 cases in Arkansas. Fast-forward to today - we have 14,600 active cases in Arkansas.

HUANG: Hutchinson has been taking this message to town halls across the state, begging Arkansans to get the shot. The state has one of the country's lowest vaccination rates. A few weeks back, Hutchinson set a modest goal of getting at least 50% vaccinated by the end of July. But the state is falling short of that goal by more than 100,000 people. There are plenty of vaccines available in the state and plenty of folks who don't want them.

DEBBIE REYNOLDS: I have grandchildren. I'm not going to take the vaccine.

HUANG: This is Debbie Reynolds. She's a local in Heber Springs. It's a lakeside retirement and a resort city in the Ozark foothills. She went to a town hall this week and found it super frustrating.

REYNOLDS: How can I spread something to a person who's been vaccinated? They think we're that stupid. They treat you like you're just too dumb to make good decisions for your family. How many people do you see laying around on the sidewalks and in their yards dying of COVID? Nowhere.

HUANG: But people are dying in the hospitals, and the virus is spreading. Health officials are working hard to change people's minds with science. They're out there sharing data about how masks and vaccines protect people from COVID and about the looming shortage in hospital beds. Colonel Robert Ator leads the state's vaccine distribution program.

ROBERT ATOR: What started out as being a logistics and distribution kind of an exercise has turned out to be psychology.

HUANG: Ator says demand for the vaccines has actually gone up over 60% in the past three weeks. He says the governor's town hall meetings are encouraging people, and the delta variant is scaring them. But he worries that it may not be enough.

ATOR: Eighty-nine percent of the new virus cases are sequenced to the delta variant. And so we have to get out there. And 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.

CHERYL STIMSON: So here's your vaccination card. You're getting Pfizer today.

HUANG: Back in Dumas at the Dumas Family Pharmacy, owner Cheryl Stimson is giving out shots.

STIMSON: You'll come back August 17 for your second vaccine.

MICHAEL HAYNES: All right, they said that second shot will get you a little ill.

STIMSON: It may or may not. I've had it both ways.

HAYNES: Yeah. I trust you. You're my pharmacist.

HUANG: Michael Haynes says he's been feeling fine, but he's not taking any chances.

HAYNES: Oh, man, it's getting pretty rough around here now. So I just came in just to get a vaccine.

HUANG: Is your life going to change after you get a vaccine at all?

HAYNES: Yeah, once you get fully vaccinated, you get a $20 scratch-off, ain't it? So next month, I'm going to get my scratch-off.

HUANG: Haynes wants a chance at winning the lottery. Stimson calls these vaccines liquid gold. She's personally given over 5,800 shots at churches, schools and community events. She's trying to get everyone vaccinated at the city's factories, and mostly, she's been having luck.

STIMSON: I've been to all but one. And I'm trying to talk them into letting me come in. The plant manager - this is the vaccine hesitancy. He 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; somebody's making them do something they don't want to do.

HUANG: At the town hall meeting in Dumas, Dollie Wilson, a local missionary, says she's planning to go door to door or wherever it takes to convince people to get a shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOLLIE WILSON: Yesterday, in Walmart, I got cursed out by one person, but I got five people to sign up for the vaccination. It was well worth it.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

HUANG: But Wilson and state officials are working against a tide of misinformation. And turning that tide comes down to one-on-one talks. Tammy Kellebrew, the traveling pharmacist, says she's trying hard to calm people's specific fears.

KELLEBREW: I've given shots in the grocery store. I've given them in the - people's cars. I've given it at homes. And now I travel with a magnet.

HUANG: That's because one false rumor on the internet is that the vaccine can make you magnetic.

KELLEBREW: We were in a grocery store. I was giving the shot in the grocery store. And I said, can you - I know you have magnets. Can you go get me a magnet? She did. And it kept falling off her arm. And I said, is that what you needed to see?

HUANG: State officials say if they can find a way to punch through the hesitancy they're facing now, they could end up as a model for the nation as the delta variant spreads. Dr. Jennifer Dillaha is the state epidemiologist. She hopes other states will learn from what's happening here.

JENNIFER DILLAHA: There are a lot of places that - they may have higher vaccination rates than what we have in Arkansas, but their vaccination rates are certainly not high enough to suppress the spread of the delta variant. And it may be that it's just a matter of time before they get hit, as well.

HUANG: Dillaha says states need to make a big push to get people vaccinated now because they're going to need that protection.

Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALUM GRAHAM AND ANTOINE DUFOUR'S "GRACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.