Investigators: State research shows white, rural conservative Tennesseans most likely to not trust COVID-19 vaccine

State says it will try to win them over
State research shows white, rural conservative Tennesseans most likely to not trust vaccines
State research shows white, rural conservative Tennesseans most likely to not trust vaccines
Published: May. 5, 2021 at 8:43 AM CDT
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(Editor’s note: This story was originally published April 29, 2021 at 7:29 PM CDT - Updated May 4 at 11:28 AM on

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Great Health Divide) - Tennessee Governor Bill Lee recently commissioned research to learn more about who is hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The research, obtained exclusively by the WMC Action News 5 Investigators, shows white conservatives living in rural areas are most unlikely to get vaccinated.

Martha Biggs is white, identifies as conservative, and owns property in Tipton County, Tennessee.

She says her husband died waiting to get his shot.

“They were starting to give it but he wasn’t in line yet until after he’d already passed,” said Biggs.

Wayne Biggs contracted COVID-19 on Christmas Eve and his health quickly declined.

“It finally got to the point where if he wanted to breathe, he had to go on the respirator, and we knew odds were really low that he would ever come off of it,” she said. “We were never prepared for him to be gone at this point. He was so active and strong.”

The 78-year-old died on January 29.

Two weeks later, Martha Biggs got her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Her brother-in-law then got vaccinated. So did his girlfriend, Judy Dunaway.

“I love my boyfriend enough that I was going to do everything I could to stay safe,” Dunaway told the Investigators.

Tipton County, where Dunaway lives, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in West Tennessee.

“Does that surprise you?” asked the Investigators.

“Not really. I think a lot of people - are they hard headed or?” said Dunaway.

“I think it’s just that they’re not around as many people,” said Biggs.

“I hear a lot of people say that they believe the numbers are lies,” said Dunaway. “They believe the numbers aren’t real. So, that’s a lot of people up here.”

Tipton County residents are not alone in their skepticism.

The governor’s office recently hired a Knoxville-based marketing agency to find out who’s not getting vaccinated and why, so the state can try to “overcome the barriers associated with those who are rejecting or hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine.”

The agency interviewed more than 1,000 Tennesseans in March and April and found “white, conservative rural Tennesseans are the least willing to accept the vaccine and seem to have planted their heels in the sand.”

Tipton County is rural, majority white and conservative. Most voters chose President Trump in the 2020 election.

Biggs and Dunaway say many of their neighbors and friends fall into that category.

“And it hasn’t helped with this election. So many of them did not trust the way the election went,” said Dunaway. “So now it’s like ‘you want us to trust the government some more?’”

Trust is a big factor in vaccine hesitancy, the research shows, with “white respondents for the most part claiming to trust no one!”

“There’s a fragility of trust issue that people are picking and choosing where they’re getting their information,” said Baker McCool, EMS program director for Dyersburg State Community College. “Plus, it’s a heavily politicized issue nationwide.”

On Saturdays, McCool leads mass vaccination events at the college’s Tipton County campus in Covington.

On April 17, McCool had 300 Moderna vaccine doses ready. Only 45 people showed up.

While polls nationwide show most people are willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, when it comes to political ideology, Republicans are still less willing to get vaccinated.

The trend isn’t new. A paper published by the National Institutes of Health said in 2018 that “trust in science and trust in government is usually lower for conservatives than liberals.”

Rural Americans, who are more likely to vote Republican, were getting the COVID-19 vaccine quicker when it became available than their urban and suburban counterparts, but that progress has begun to stagnate.

“Why do you think that population might be more hesitant than another type of population?” asked the Investigators.

“I think it simply goes back to the fear of the unknown,” said Justin Hanson, mayor of Covington, Tennessee. “Not knowing how the vaccine is going to affect you, if it’s going to affect you, will you have any side effects, and I think people are probably erring on the side of caution by not wanting to experience any symptoms or have potential side effects, versus the effects of COVID-19, which is interesting.”

Hanson has been vaccinated, but research shows many Tennesseans worry about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Who really knows all the risks?” One Tennessean said in the study.

“I just don’t care to be the guinea pig,” said another.

“99 percent of the adverse effects occur within the first two months of administering the vaccine,” said Dr. William Shaffner from Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He helped create the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

“This notion that vaccines administered today will have adverse effects 5 to 10 years down the road, that doesn’t have any place in the scientific textbook,” said Shaffner.

Shaffner says vaccine skepticism has been around since their creation even though diseases like Smallpox and Polio have been eradicated in the United States because of vaccines.

While some parents in the U.S. won’t vaccinate their children for MMR, the diseases continue to kill worldwide.

The concern with the COVID-19 vaccine for some is that it came out too quickly.

“Did the vaccine come out too quickly?” asked the Investigators.

“Oh, the vaccine came out very quickly and very fortunately,” said Shaffner. “The science behind the vaccine, that was in the works for 15 or 20 years. That wasn’t so quick.”

The science behind the vaccine is Messenger-RNA or MRNA, which has been studied for decades.

Plus, the National Institutes of Health have been studying coronaviruses for years.

A video provided by the Centers of Disease Control says, “Scientists [at the NIH] actually created a vaccine that could be custom-made to fight different strains of coronavirus, like the virus that causes COVID.”

“Once COVID-19 arrived, the technology was ready to use,” said Shaffner.

“Scientists, not only in our country but around the world, took that science and then, indeed, created a vaccine very quickly, and we tested it very thoroughly,” he said.

Now, more than 200 million doses have been administered in the United States.

Side effects are being tracked using the Vaccine Safety Monitoring System, which is how public health officials were able to trace six people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and developed blood clots.

“It’s six cases out of 6.8 million Johnson & Johnson doses. So, it’s literally the one in a million,” said McCool.

McCool helped administer the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to 250 Tipton County residents at Missionary Baptist churches this month before the federal government paused use of the vaccine because of its possible link to blood clots.

“Do you think it’s going to have a negative impact on vaccine uptake?” asked the Investigators.

“I think the Johnson & Johnson, it will,” he said. “It will be a big hurdle for us as vaccinators and pod operators to get the correct information out to people and try to re-establish that trust factor.”

The state’s research shows those who are hesitant to get the vaccine would more likely get shots administered by their doctor or primary care physician than at a mass vaccination site.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has the best chance of being administered by local physicians because of its single dose and the ease of storage, it doesn’t require ultra-cold temperatures like the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

However, any negative story will make those already hesitant more so, said Shaffner.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that any bump in the road, regarding any vaccine, that concern spreads out and if you’re already hesitant, you’ll have a little more hesitancy,” he said.

The state’s study shows those who are hesitant may get vaccinated if it protects their families.

That’s why Biggs and Dunaway got vaccinated, which they readily tell their friends.

“I just tell them it’s your own business, but I think it’s sad that you don’t. This is the way I feel, that you don’t love someone enough to keep them safe,” said Dunaway.

The women stop short of trying to convince someone else to do it.

“I’ve talked to a couple of them, but pretty much, their minds are made up. You lose friends that way,” said Biggs.

The COVID-19 vaccine is 90 percent effective in preventing hospitalization or death.

Your chances of dying from COVID-19 are low, about one in 100. Your chance of having a severe reaction from the vaccine is even more rare at about one in a million.

Great Health Divide is an initiative addressing health disparities in the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia funded in part by the Google News Initiative.

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