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Rural COVID-19 Cases Keep Dropping, Despite Vaccine Hesitancy

A banner for a COVID vaccine center hangs over the sign of a store at a mall.
Maggie Mullen
Mountain West News Bureau
The Casper-Natrona County Health Department's COVID vaccine center at a shopping mall.

COVID-19 infection rates in the rural parts of the Mountain West continue to drop, despite the fact that public health officials in the region are struggling to get more people vaccinated.

Across the country the number of new cases in rural counties are at their lowest levels since July 2020, according to data from the nonprofit aggregator USA Facts that was analyzed by The Daily Yonder.

In northern Montana's Toole County, for example, there’s only one documented active case. But at the same time, only about a third of all residents there are fully vaccinated.

Blair Tomsheck, director of the Toole County Health Department, says people are hesitant to get vaccinated.

“I think that there’s still some uncertainty behind the science of it and thinking that it’s still a new vaccine when it's not, really," Tomsheck said. "I think people have also made up their minds very early on in the pandemic that they are going to live their lives the way they’ve lived it, not changing anything.”

She says the current low infection rates are due in part to social distancing and washing hands. But she also thinks people aren’t getting tested.

“People are not being completely honest and they aren’t being tested like they were in the beginning, and if they are sick they are just trying to stay home and stay out of the public eye,” she said.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey on COVID-19 vaccinations in rural America found that large shares of respondents who said they will “definitely not” get a vaccine self-identify as white evangelicals (41%) and Republicans or Republican-leaning (73%).

Tomsheck’s team has been using Facebook to dispel myths. Her goal is to get at least 70% of all eligible people there vaccinated.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Nate Hegyi is a roving regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at Nevada Public Radio. You can reach him at natehegyi@protonmail.com.

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