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Vaccination Rates Lag In 3 Gulf States: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana

NOEL KING, HOST:

Three Gulf Coast states - Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana - rank at the bottom for vaccinations. Shalina Chatlani of the Gulf States Newsroom brought us a report on what vaccination efforts there look like.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: Vaccine skepticism isn't the only reason Gulf states have low vaccination rates. Scott Harris is Alabama's public health officer.

SCOTT HARRIS: For a big rural state, there are some people who just haven't been able to get it yet.

CHATLANI: But Harris acknowledges that many in the South are hesitant about getting the shots, too.

HARRIS: And, you know, the hesitancy we've seen in African American communities is different from the hesitancy we've seen in rural white communities.

CHATLANI: At this coffee shop in Amory, Miss., which has a population under 7,000, Brandon Aday, who's 33 and white, says he's totally against the vaccine.

BRANDON ADAY: I'll admit it - the South is, you know, I'm American. I can do what I want, and you ain't going to take my guns. And it's my body, and until I see significant research - significant, you know, anything - why take the risk?

CHATLANI: The main strategy now to change people's minds about the vaccine is to encourage local leaders like pastors at churches to deliver the message that it's safe and effective. Last weekend, Meadowood Baptist Church in Amory hosted a vaccination event. In its gym, worship music played to ease participants' anxieties as staff from a local community clinic gave shots. Some of the 30 people who came said they wanted the vaccine but couldn't find one before. Others said they'd already had COVID and had to wait to get vaccinated. Lloyd Sweatt, the pastor here, knows his word carries weight.

LLOYD SWEATT: I've shared that I've done it, and some have said, OK, I'll do it then.

CHATLANI: In Louisiana, other Christian groups have come under scrutiny for telling their followers to not get vaccinated. Sweatt says, to him, vaccination looks like the best path to churches being able to fully open safely again.

SWEATT: The church has been a place where we can do the vaccine and open their doors to anybody that wants to come. Most in the South still have some degree of trust in the church.

CHATLANI: Thomas LaVeist, a health policy and equity expert at Tulane University, says he thinks a combination of carrots and sticks would work best in the South.

THOMAS LAVEIST: I would love to see CDC loosen its guidelines a bit more for people that have been vaccinated. So one carrot is more freedom for people that have been vaccinated.

CHATLANI: LaVeist, who's on Louisiana's COVID-19 equity task force, says being sensitive to people's sense of liberty is important, but there's a track record of Gulf states following science too. Vaccination rates for shots given in childhood, like those for measles and mumps, are above 90%. He notes that those are mandatory for public school kids and in some other settings, but states are unlikely to add COVID shots to their mandatory lists until they move past the current emergency use authorization to full approval. It remains to be seen how broadly adopted requirements for COVID-19 vaccines will be in the future.

LAVEIST: The reason that we're not treating COVID like any other virus, like we treat smallpox and mumps, is that it became politicized.

CHATLANI: LaVeist is hopeful that the number of schools and employers requiring COVID vaccination will grow, and that will help pull up numbers in the South. He says pediatricians will also play an important role in convincing parents to vaccinate their kids. For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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