Tyson Foods is requiring frontline workers to be vaccinated by November 1. In this photo, a Tyson employee in Joslin, Illinois, receives a Covid-19 vaccine in February. (John Konstantaras/AP Images for Tyson Foods)

Using larger businesses as sites for rural vaccination clinics could help decrease vaccine hesitancy and contribute to economic turnarounds in those areas, experts say.

On September 9, President Joe Biden issued sweeping vaccine mandates calling for federal employees, federal contractors and healthcare workers at facilities receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds to be vaccinated. The “Path Out of the Pandemic” also called on businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure that their employees are either vaccinated or being tested.

 Using businesses as a place to get vaccinations could overcome some vaccine hesitancy in rural areas, said Jeanne Bonds, professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. Bonds’ research focuses on West Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

“One of the bigger challenges is that in (rural) areas … they don’t have coordinated transportation systems that you really have to have to get the vaccine out to the people,” Bonds said. “So I think one of the advantages to requiring it at the workplace, if it’s a business with 100 [employees] or more, is that it probably opens up the option for actually delivering the vaccines out to those places where inconvenience is an issue.”

Those vaccination clinics also allow trusted voices in rural areas, like pharmacists and family doctors, to talk with workers about the vaccine. Getting out the right message via the right messenger is important, Bonds said.

“It’s a great opportunity for (workers) to have trusted messengers deliver the message about the vaccines,” she said. “We talked to people all over the state (North Carolina); community leaders as well as just low-income households, and one of the pieces that jumps out is that  people just don’t trust the messenger — they don’t naturally trust the government. They trust their local pharmacist. I think it’s an opportunity for those businesses to bring vaccines on site and also bring that message on site and increase the vaccination rate.”

For example, at Tyson Foods, providing vaccination clinics onsite has increased the number of workers with at least one dose of the vaccine, a spokesman with Tyson said in an email interview.

In early August, the company decided to vaccinate its workforce and combined incentives for workers to get the shots with education and information.

“Like many other businesses, we are taking steps to protect all of these things by requiring all U.S. team members to be fully vaccinated,” Tyson President and CEO Donnie King said in an August blog post. “We did not take this decision lightly. We have spent months encouraging our team members to get vaccinated – today, under half of our team members are. We take this step today because nothing is more important than our team members’ health and safety, and we thank them for the work they do, every day, to help us feed this country, and our world.”

Tyson frontline employees have until November 1 to get vaccinated, and all new employees must show proof of vaccination prior to starting with the company.

“We believe that getting vaccinated is the single most effective thing our team members can do to protect themselves, their families, and the communities where we operate,” the spokesman said. “We continue to provide our U.S. workers with free, on-site access to Covid-19 vaccinations.” 

Tyson is providing a $200 “thank you gift” to fully vaccinated frontline workers and is running sweepstakes worth $6 million to incentivize vaccinations. 

“We’re also conducting an extensive outreach campaign to educate and inform team members about the COVID-19 vaccinations. These efforts include one on one conversations with team members to answer questions and address concerns.”

As a result, the company has approximately 100,000 vaccinated workers – more than 80% of its U.S. workforce. Since the initiative started in August, more than 45,000 workers have been vaccinated.

Increasing vaccinations is important, not just in ensuring people don’t get sick, but also in helping rural communities begin their economic recovery.

According to the Brookings Institution, areas with low vaccination rates will continue to struggle as Covid-19 keeps workers, shoppers and children at home.

“The vaccine divide (between counties that are vaccinated and counties that are not)… will likely exacerbate the other economic divides that are already weakening the nation,” the report said.

The more unvaccinated communities continue to resist safety precautions and vaccinations, the institute found, the more their economies could fall further behind faster-recovering communities with higher vaccination rates.

In some areas with low vaccination rates, UNC’s Bonds said, the communities are dying. Low vaccination rates mean more sick people who put more pressure on rural healthcare systems, she said. More sick people also means higher rates of death. In some cases, rural counties are seeing more deaths than there are births leading to the counties slowly dying off. 

The most recent Daily Yonder analysis found that the rural Covid-19 death rate is twice that of urban areas. About 40% of the total rural population has completed a Covid-19 vaccination, while about 52% of the urban population has. 

Low vaccination rates also mean fewer people to work and shop, which means less money circulating through a community and fewer tax dollars supporting it.

Increasing the vaccination rates could turn things around in some rural areas, Bonds said.

“We have these different tiers of counties,” she said. “We have the ones that are in really dramatically bad shape, which are going to take a lot of effort to bring back. We have some that are kind of teetering on the edge, which I do think they can come back if they can attract people to come there.”  

But in some counties, economic issues like lack of affordable housing, lack of childcare and lack of capital to invest in the area will continue to be a problem, no matter what the vaccination rate is, she said.

“Depending on the county, bringing the vaccination rate up won’t necessarily turn them around,” she said. “It would have to be that combined with some other issues.”