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Biden Administration Reaches Out To Rural Americans To Get Vaccinated

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Getting half of American adults to receive a COVID-19 shot may have been the easy part. The U.S. hit that milestone earlier this week. Now the Biden administration is moving into a persuasion phase. It's trying to convince the other half of Americans to get their shots. And officials readily admit they may not always be the best messengers. We're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. So just first off, what do we know about the roughly 50% of adults who haven't yet gotten a COVID shot?

KEITH: You know, it was only this week that every single state lifted restrictions on who could be vaccinated. So some share of this population are just people who are waiting their turn. Dr. Ashish Jha at Brown University told me people who went out and got vaccinated right away were the equivalent of those people who wait overnight at the Apple store for a new iPhone.

MARTIN: (Laughter) I feel that. Yeah.

KEITH: I feel it. I am it.

MARTIN: Yeah.

KEITH: So who is left? People who can't or won't jump through a lot of hoops to get a vaccine and people who have questions or concerns about getting vaccinated. But Jha said it would be a mistake to label them as hesitant or resisters.

ASHISH JHA: That's hugely problematic because I don't think they are. And I think actually there are lots of people who are perfectly happy to get a vaccine but aren't desperate for it, aren't convinced that they need it badly, and we still make it too hard for many people.

KEITH: And also, there appears to be an emerging gap between rural and urban areas. An NPR analysis finds that in more than half of states, vaccination in rural counties is lagging behind urban areas.

MARTIN: So what's the Biden administration saying about how it plans to reach these populations?

KEITH: There are public service announcements, a We Can Do This social media campaign you may have seen show up on your Facebook feed, but a central part of the plan is something called the COVID-19 Community CORE. This is an effort to bring together hundreds of local and national groups and thousands of regular people just trying to help. I got a chance to tune in to one of their Zoom sessions this week.

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, why don't we go ahead and get started?

KEITH: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is leading the calls.

MURTHY: And I just want to remind you again, which we will keep doing again and again and again, that this is not just a government-driven effort.

KEITH: He called it an effort to build a people-powered movement.

MURTHY: It's about creating a community where we can celebrate what people are doing, where we can share best practices, where we can inspire one another just as we learn.

KEITH: But scanning through the list of founding members of the Community CORE, there are a lot of progressive organizations, which had me questioning exactly how they intend to reach conservatives and people in rural areas. Administration officials are aware of the limits of their influence, says Terri Moore at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

TERRI MOORE: To their credit, when the White House reached out, they acknowledged that they're not going to be the strongest voice necessarily in some rural communities, and they need those strong, trusted voices.

KEITH: The Farm Bureau, with its 6 million members and 2,800 county affiliates, was eager to jump in and help. They've joined Murthy's Zoom calls and shared what works.

MOORE: In Idaho, one of our members, a potato farmer, hosted a clinic on their farm and got 350 people vaccinated in a couple of hours.

KEITH: People told me, yes, acceptance is an issue, but improving access is just as important. Alan Morgan with the National Rural Health Association is concerned rural communities are getting left behind.

ALAN MORGAN: Rural's not a small version of urban. You know, it's a unique community unto itself. And it's not all middle-aged white guys either.

KEITH: Morgan's group is part of the Community CORE and a bunch of other efforts. He says they've even sent suggested talking points to the Biden administration.

MORGAN: The messaging in a rural context is forget what the federal government's telling us. As a community, what do we need to do to keep our family, friends and loved ones safe? What do we have to do as a community? And that's a huge communication shift than what's currently ongoing.

KEITH: That's the approach Dr. Ada Stewart has been taking. She practices at a community health center in South Carolina and is also president of the American Association of Family Physicians. She says transportation is a major issue for her rural patients. They can't drive two hours to a mass vaccination site. And...

ADA STEWART: I have patients that say, uh-uh, I'm going to wait until Dr. Stewart can give me my vaccine. I don't trust anybody else.

KEITH: Her clinics now have enough doses available that if a patient comes in for another reason, they can usually give them a COVID vaccine right then and there. And when it comes to success stories, there often aren't any federal government fingerprints at all. In Greenbrier County, W.Va., getting people vaccinated became a big community-wide volunteer effort.

JULIAN LEVINE: We have yet to - and I'm sure about this - we have yet to lose a dose.

KEITH: Julian Levine works the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, which has been helping the county go all out. Sometimes that meant running the Saturday vaccine clinic extra late or, in one case, the county health officer and her staff took doses over to a local restaurant to make sure they didn't go to waste.

LEVINE: Really, it's connecting to people that we know one on one and through Facebook and knowing the people downtown so I can call the 22-year-olds who might not show up and say, you have to show up or I'm going to come find you.

KEITH: These are the very sorts of things the Biden administration is trying to encourage.

MARTIN: Tamara Keith, such an interesting story. Tam is still with us. The president said yesterday the vaccination effort is entering a new phase now. Can you explain what that means?

KEITH: In part, it's a phase where they're going to have vaccines everywhere because until every corner of the country is reached and millions more people decide to get vaccinated, there is a real risk of cases surging in pockets or small rural communities being devastated by an outbreak. The U.S. simply can't afford to leave people behind.

MARTIN: All right. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thanks for your reporting on this.

KEITH: You're welcome.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, as in a previous version of the web story, we incorrectly refer to the American Association of Family Physicians. The correct name is the American Academy of Family Physicians.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.