A return to regular, small-town living will require a continuous effort to get residents vaccinated for Covid-19, according to the head of the Rural America Chamber of Commerce.
And business leaders know they need to do their part to make sure that happens.
“A lot of business leaders, small business owners — they see this as a critical issue,” said Sherri Powell, the Rural America Chamber’s executive director. “We will never get back to normal, even as small towns. We can’t gather at the local baseball team’s games, or we can’t head into summer camp. These things are just not going to happen in a safe way until we take this seriously and get the shots.”
Powell spoke as part of last week’s National Rural Business Summit. The online event was sponsored by the Health Action Alliance. The summit explored outreach tools that business leaders, public health officials, and elected officials can use to share information in rural communities about Covid-19 vaccination. (DISCLOSURE: The Health Action Alliance has provided financial support to the Daily Yonder for its coverage of vaccination issues in rural America.)
Joining Powell on a panel about using private-public partnerships to promote vaccination education was Tina May, vice president and chief of staff at Land O’ Lakes. A Minnesota-based agricultural cooperative with more than 10,000 employees, Land O’ Lakes hosts on-site vaccination clinics for their workers, May said. The company is continuing to make the vaccine available and communicating with employees about their vaccination choices now that the initial high demand for vaccines has decreased.
“We continue to have vaccine clinics, and we are offering not just the mass vaccination clinics, but the walk-in-anytime-you-want at certain locations,” she said. “We’re continuing to see that steady drumbeat of requests for vaccines.”
Maria Elena Castro, a health equity program analyst with the Oregon Health Authority, said businesses can help ensure that scientifically accurate information about vaccination reaches their employees.
“Employers have a huge role in ensuring that … public health [organizations] describe what science says in an accessible way,” she said. “We all need to be very truthful and transparent.”
That may require extra steps for agencies and businesses. The Oregon Health Authority has produced vaccination material in 15 languages and dialects for agricultural workers, Castro said.
She also said hosting on-site vaccinations can be a big help for some workers. “Transportation is key,” she said. “Agriculture workers that come to the state for work may not have access to transportation, or may depend on other workers or their employers for transportation.” Access to the technology to set up appointments for vaccination may also be a problem, she said.
As of June 7, states had documented that about a third of the nation’s 46 million residents of nonmetropolitan counties had completed their Covid-19 vaccinations, according to a Daily Yonder analysis of federal and state data. The metropolitan rate of vaccination was 40% on June 7.
Nationally, employers are very concerned about getting their workforce vaccinated, research says. A report by Arizona State University and the Rockefeller Foundation found that “88% of employers plan to require or encourage their employees to be vaccinated” and “59% of employers plan to incentivize their employees to be vaccinated”.
Powell emphasized the power of consistency when building a relationship between community leaders and residents. When asked about how structural inequities have affected communities of color, she said residents of color can have difficulty taking time off work, overcoming side effects, finding transportation to vaccination sites, and viewing town leaders as credible sources of information.
She said trusting leaders was more than just a vaccination issue. “We need [them] to be here and to build credibility all the time, all year round. Pandemic [and] non-pandemic,” Powell said.
Mollyann Brodie with the Kaiser Family Foundation also emphasized the importance of developing trust. “[People] just want to get the answers to their questions so that they can decide for themselves,” she said, “So making sure that we address people’s worries will be part of the solution.”
The mayor of Kinston, North Carolina, a city of about 20,000 on the state’s coastal plain, said social media is one tool his community is using to spread the word about vaccinations. “We’re taking pictures, we’re getting prominent people in the community to actually get the vaccination,” said Mayor Don Hardy. “We have them put it out there on social media so cities and towns across the U.S. are more engaged.”
White House Vaccinations Coordinator Dr. Bechara Choucair said outreach to rural areas is part of a national push to reach people who have not been vaccinated. He said there were “more than 100 organizations that have committed to hosting over 1,000 events the first weekend in June alone.”
As part of the online summit, the National Rural Health Association released a toolkit for communicating about vaccination in rural areas. The Health Action Alliance also released a checklist for rural employers who want to do more to educate workers and community members about vaccination for Covid-19.