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Investigators: New push to vaccinate holdouts across the Mid-South

Published: Aug. 12, 2021 at 9:54 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The number of people being vaccinated in Tennessee is at its highest daily rate since mid-June, but many Mid-Southerners still refuse to roll up their sleeves.

There’s a new push to change their minds.

Dana Naifeh is getting her second dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. Skeptical about the vaccine’s long-term side effects, she waited until mid-summer to get immunized.

Naifeh is co-owner of the Naifeh’s Cash Saver grocery store in Covington, Tennessee. Brent Smith owns the pharmacy inside of the store.

“He’d been unable to convince his friend to get vaccinated until she recently decided she was ready,” Naifeh said.

She explained why she chose to be vaccinated now.

“I felt like I had waited and watched other people get the vaccine. There were no significant issues that I thought. I just felt it was the right thing to do to protect myself, everyone around me, and my husband. And I have elderly parents as well,” Naifeh explained.

Naifeh isn’t alone.

Smith says at his clinic, over the last couple of weeks, the number of people looking to get vaccinated for COVID-19 has exploded.

“It’s about tripled from what it was,” Smith said.

Smith says most of those now getting vaccinated are the holdouts.

Those who were waiting to see how the vaccine affected others or those affected by the virus are now deciding to protect themselves as the Delta variant pushes the case count higher.

“All those ‘I need more information folks,’ they’ve all decided that this is the best way to go and just go ahead and get it for their safety, because they’re knowing people who have it right now or have had it. They’re just afraid,” Smith said.

Along with the rest of the Mid-South, COVID-19 cases in Tipton County are on the rise. The number of vaccinations is rising too, but the county continues to have one of the lowest vaccination rates in west Tennessee.

It’s not surprising, based on this market research commissioned by Governor Bill Lee’s office earlier this year. It shows 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 in the county chose Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Based on the state’s research, the department of health launched the Give a Shot campaign in May.

Messaging comprised of digital, TV, and radio ads geared toward those most vaccine hesitant: urban/suburban black, rural white, and Hispanic.

It’s too soon to tell if the campaign is working, but Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercy says more shots are getting into arms.

“At the end of the day, we’ve had increased vaccine uptake amongst Tennesseans and it doesn’t matter, I don’t really care what the reason is. I want our work to be effective, but whatever it is that’s causing it, I appreciate that and am encouraged by that,” Piercy said.

Piercey says there will soon be a second round of research to see who is still hesitant and why.

" We heard early on ‘it’s still too new, I don’t really know yet, I want to wait and see what happens.’ Well, fast forward the tape six or nine months, they may very likely feel differently about that,” Piercy said.

“The demographic that has kind of dug their heels in, many times based on false evidence on not getting the vaccine, really still feel that way,” said Dr. Dale Criner with the Memphis Medical Society.

Criner says state resources shouldn’t go toward more research.

“We already know who the folks are who are not getting it. Let’s get them vaccinated. Let’s make it as easy as possible. Let’s put vaccine clinics everywhere we can put them, get the shots in peoples’ arms. That’s really where the focus should be at this point.”

Criner believes the state’s campaign is one effective way to reach the vaccine hesitant, but the best way to change minds is talking to a trusted individual.

Smith says he’s been answering questions from the vaccine hesitant, including a Tipton County resident getting his first dose. The resident did not want his face shown.

" People will say such venom that you’ll wind up losing friends over it and I don’t have time for that, the resident said.

The man says he may end up isolated from some in his community, but getting vaccinated was a choice he needed to make.

“I have a son that is severely asthmatic and I just really looked inside myself and said hey, this is the right thing to do and for us to get back to normal as a society.’ This is the only way it’s going to happen,” he said.

Smith says whatever the reason someone chooses to get vaccinated is a good one. He hopes he continues to be busier than ever.

" Hopefully, we can get this thing back under control and like everyone’s been talking about, get life back to normal,| said Smith.

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