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Vaccination Rates Have Stalled In Places Like Upstate New York

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The new masking guidance from the CDC comes as vaccinations in the U.S. have slowed dramatically since April. Emily Russell of North Country Public Radio talked to some people in upstate New York about why they are or aren't getting vaccinated.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: The new guidance from the CDC says vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in places where COVID cases are high. They're low here in the city of Plattsburgh. That's where I meet 87-year-old Gerry Kelly. He's at the mall where he walks every morning for exercise. Kelly says he is not taking any chances.

GERRY KELLY: I don't know who's been vaccinated, who hasn't been vaccinated. And, you know, I know people here. And I stop. We talk. And I just feel more comfortable with the mask.

RUSSELL: The vaccination rate here is higher than the national average, but there are still about 32,000 people in the county who were unvaccinated. I talked to more than two dozen people in Plattsburgh recently and only a few said they were unvaccinated. And most of them didn't want to say more.

Can you tell me who you are and where you're from?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No.

RUSSELL: OK. Thanks. But Eric Devo-Pugh, who's in his 30s, would talk on tape. He says he never gets the annual flu shot and isn't planning to get vaccinated against COVID.

ERIC DEVO-PUGH: Don't really have a lot of faith in, you know, what's out there. You know, a lot of reading, a lot of people skeptical. So I'm kind of on that bandwagon.

RUSSELL: This week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $15 million outreach campaign to get more New Yorkers vaccinated. Devo-Pugh, though, says there is no politician, Republican or Democrat, who could convince him.

What about the leading scientists in the country saying wear a mask and then get the vaccine? Why does that not convince you?

DEVO-PUGH: I guess I just don't watch. No. 1, I don't watch the news. I'm not really affiliated with any political agenda.

RUSSELL: Tony Fauci, say, who was under Trump, now is under Biden, is not a political guy. And he's saying you should get the vaccine.

DEVO-PUGH: Maybe he's pushing something that I don't know. I don't really know.

RUSSELL: Our conversation goes on like this for about 10 minutes. Devo-Pugh keeps saying he just doesn't believe the overwhelming consensus from health experts that COVID vaccines are safe and highly effective. That kind of thinking frustrates Debbie Zinser and David Curry. I meet the two as they're masking up outside a local grocery store.

DAVID CURRY: The delta variant is still circulating, and we are not 100% protected just because we're vaccinated.

RUSSELL: Curry and Zinser are both retired nurses. They know how serious a respiratory illness like COVID-19 can be. Early on in the pandemic, Zinser's sister died of the disease. Despite COVID hitting really close to home, Zinser says her own son won't get the vaccine.

DEBBIE ZINSER: He says, well, it's not really been approved. It was an emergency. And no matter what I say, he won't get vaccinated - or his wife.

RUSSELL: She's told him about the extensive research that went into the vaccine. She's pointed to the millions of Americans vaccinated without complications. Nothing is getting through to him, and Curry says that's frustrating and scary.

CURRY: He's discouraging his kids who are teenagers from getting vaccinated. And that's the problem is that it's your free will, fine. You want to die? Go ahead. But don't keep other people from doing what they think is right.

RUSSELL: This spring, thousands of people a day were getting vaccinated around the area. Now there are only a few dozen vaccinations per day.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.