As COVID-19 spread into Indiana last Spring, days seemed to stretch out to years, especially in rural areas, where isolation was tough for many. An effective vaccine, we were told, was likely two years away. Then almost miraculously, victory seemed suddenly within reach. In early 2021 we had not one, but three FDA-emergency-approved vaccines to battle the pandemic and help set things right.

At first anticipation ran high. Appointments for vaccines filled up as soon as they came open. To help meet high demand, the Indiana Department of Health put together successful large-scale mass vaccination events, including ones at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the University of Notre Dame campus and elsewhere. Things started looking completely different for Hoosier life in the future.

First responders and perhaps the most vulnerable of Hoosiers – seniors aged 70 and up – appeared in force to take the shot and take a step toward protection.

Then came April and the bottom unexpectedly fell out. Despite smooth-running logistical operations and plenty of supply, many Hoosiers – especially those living in rural areas – grew hesitant. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was temporarily withdrawn because of some concerns (concerns have been resolved and it’s now back in use). Trust levels fell precipitously, despite a monitoring level that has been described as “unprecedented.”

And with the fall in demand, so moved the finish line of this pandemic—in the wrong direction. By early May, the vaccine shots-in-arms rate had dropped nearly 50%, as reported by the Indiana Department of Health dashboard. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, Indiana came in 40th out of 50 states for successful vaccine delivery.

But all is assuredly not lost! Despite this temporary hesitancy, more than two million Hoosiers have already taken a COVID-19 vaccine shot. And an efficient and scalable distribution system stands ready to safely deliver far more.

As a healthcare professional, I get excited when I see reports that we may be nearing a positive “tipping point,” as reported by the Scripps Research Institute. That “tipping point” – where our cherished Hoosier societal freedoms and safety can start re-emerging – is defined as the time of emerging containment when numbers of COVID-19 cases go into retreat because of the number of people vaccinated.

So, when I see the signs of hesitancy that have appeared where too many seem reluctant to take the shot, I just want to encourage people – especially rural Hoosiers – to take another look at the many advantages these vaccines bring to us all.

I’ve been privileged to serve in rural healthcare since I graduated from college. I know the inside of rural hospitals well, because that’s where I’ve worked. My family and I live today in a rural area. I love rural life. Call me a rural champion.

I understand that people living in small towns and rural areas of Indiana face a unique challenge when it comes to healthcare. Some have a tough time getting healthcare at all. Things that people living in bigger cities take for granted – like simple transportation – can be a major challenge for rural residents. Too many Indiana counties are medically underserved.

With these challenges, plus the fact that many rural Hoosiers face underlying medical issues that can really complicate surviving and recovering from a COVID-19 infection, means that getting the vaccine is more important than ever.

In my position as CEO of the Indiana Rural Health Association, I’ve heard many reasons why too many rural Hoosiers are hesitant to get vaccinated. My colleagues and I know that many young people simply believe that they are immune, even invincible, from the virus. That, of course, is simply not true. People of any age who come down with COVID-19 are up against the pathological varsity.

I’ve reviewed research from McKinsey and Co. that shows that some believe that the vaccine development was “too rushed,” or that they worry about possible side effects. I personally marvel at the level and amount of disinformation – and how fast it spreads – about the vaccines.

For people – especially rural Hoosiers – who are on the fence, I encourage you to find a trusted medical professional, like your long-time physician or nurse practitioner, and point-blank (but respectfully) ask the hardest questions you can come up with. But I also encourage you to listen carefully to what they have to say.

The facts are that we have access to three vaccines with high efficacy. Millions of people have already been vaccinated. We all hope to reach the stated goal of 70% by July 4, which will really bring us closer to that sought-after “tipping point.”

On the other side, over half a million Americans have died from COVID-19, many before the vaccine could get here.  Too many of the 32 million who survived have become COVID “long haulers” with lingering aftereffects. Nobody wants to go there.

That being said, we know that fear won’t effectively motivate people. I know from personal experience that rural people value independence. And I know that some think that getting vaccinated means giving some of that up.

The truth is exactly the opposite. The more people get vaccinated, the closer we’ll get in rural and urban areas to that “tipping point.” Want to read for yourself? Visit our IRHA resources page for up-to-date information.

It’s time to protect our families. It’s time to protect our communities and our rural way of life. Let’s all become rural champions. Make an appointment and let’s get it done. Get the facts and let’s get over this dangerous vaccine hesitancy.

Safe and free rural life, urban life, Hoosier life – it’s worth a shot.

Cara Veale, DHS, OTR, FACHE, is CEO of the Indiana Rural Health Association.

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