The Daily Yonder's coverage of Covid-19 vaccinations in rural America, including the role of business in supporting employees and communities, is supported in part by the Health Action Alliance.
John Painter II operates an organic dairy farm with his family in Tioga County, Pennsylvania.
When Covid began to spread across the country, he took it seriously, wearing a mask and trading hand shakes for fist bumps during deliveries to his customers.
For a social guy like Painter, not shaking the hands of his customers and colleagues at the local Farm Bureau stung. But he stayed cautious, and pulled back.
But getting the vaccine someday? He thought about it, talked to his friends, and decided he would pass.
In February, Painter’s efforts to stay safe from Covid failed. His symptoms turned severe; he was admitted to the hospital. Before his own illness, he hadn’t known anyone to have such a high-risk case. His perspective changed: not only would he get the vaccine, he wanted to encourage others to consider it, too.
“I thought wow, I’m going to reach out and talk to some of my friends who are naysayers,” Painter said.
His story wound up reaching more than just his friends. The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau produced a video of Painter on his farm, sharing his Covid experience and recommending that others get vaccinated — if not for themselves, for the people who love them. The video worked. Friends called to say they had changed their minds about the vaccine after hearing his story: they, too, would get the shot.
The video is a strong example of the kind of communication that works in rural communities, said Hannah Lipps, rural audiences consultant for the Ad Council, the nonprofit organization that creates national campaigns on important causes, including Covid-19.
New research shows the most effective influences for Covid vaccine information are family, friends, and a person’s own doctor, Lipps said. After that, personal testimonies like Painter’s are the most influential, she said.
“Seeing real, authentic stories of people who look like them, sound like them, and feel relatable, still matters,” Lipps said.
Liam Migdail, communications director for Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said he knew right away that Painter’s story would be one they would want to tell.
“He lives in a rural area. He’s not having a ton of interaction with other people and he got very, very sick,” Migdail said. “What was particularly powerful about his message was “if you aren’t going to do it for yourself, do it for other people.”
For farmers and the agricultural community, the concept of being there for your family and your family being able to count on you is incredibly important, Migdail said.
“I think that really extends to rural communities in general. There’s a very strong sense of family. For him to say that, it really resonated with other people. ‘What if I was in the hospital for a week, what if I was seriously ill or what if I died?’ I think that helped to open people’s eyes.”
“I Thought We Were Friends”
The video, filmed on the Painter family farm, begins with Painter sharing how his perspective changed.
“I wasn’t sure about the vaccine.
I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to get the vaccine.
But then I got sick.
I’m convinced now that I’m going to get the vaccine. And I really recommend and pray that my friends and everybody else will.”
After the 3 minute video was released in June, most of the feedback was positive, Painter said.
“Several people called me and said, ‘Holy smokes, Johnny, we weren’t sure what we were going to do and after we watched your video, we’re going to get vaccinated.’ ”
Still, Painter had a few friends who were not pleased.
“One guy — he was upset – he said, ‘I kind of always thought you were a friend, John.’ And I said, ‘You and I are always going to be friends. We can have a difference of opinion and still be friends.’ I said, ‘Johnny Painter can’t tell people they have to get vaccinated. All I can do is tell my story and recommend that people do,’ I said “you still have to do what is right for you.’ ”
Painter pushed a little further.
“I said, ‘Why are we so scared about getting vaccinated ourselves, when we’ve vaccinated our animals for hundreds of years, and about people lined up to get vaccinated for polio, and our science is way ahead of where we were even 20 or 30 years ago?’ ”
In particular, he was reminded of bovine viral diarrhea, which devastated his herd of cattle in the 1990s.
“We had to vaccinate. If you skipped one, you could pretty near guarantee the next season, that one would get sick and die. I’ve seen what happens with animals when you do not stick to the vaccine protocol.”
The Ad Council is focusing its messaging on helping people get accurate facts, Lipps said.
“We are leaning into there’s a lot of information out there, get the latest facts,” Lipps said.
Organizations and individuals who want to share personal stories like Painter’s can record simple, authentic messages on their phones, and then link to fact-based information sources, like the Ad Council’s Covid-19 resources page, she said.
While the Farm Bureau video was professionally produced, not all videos need to be. In fact, the more relatable the better, she said.
“As long as it is authentic and the real deal, they should run with it,” Lipps said.
Painter continues to share his story in conversations and interviews. He cares deeply for the agriculture community that he has been part of his entire life, and he has served in leadership in the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. He loves his family and community. His brothers, who own the farm business with him, also are community-focused: one as a coach, the other in 4-H.
“I think people really need to look at the health benefits of getting vaccinated,” he said. “Of course, there are going to be some people who have some bad reactions, and that is sad, and I feel bad for them. But I think you are a whole lot safer to take the risk and get vaccinated.”
In late June, when Painter was eligible for his first vaccine, he consulted his doctor, and he and his son Jacob went together to get their shots. It was Jacob who urged his father to be tested for Covid. They are both fully vaccinated against the virus now.
“If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for the people you love and love you,” Painter said.