The residents of Wallace County, on the Colorado border, don’t seem to begrudge their neighbors for choosing to get one of the coronavirus vaccines. But they hold little trust in the federal government and state agencies pushing them and don’t want to be told what to do. In a place where freedom of choice and personal autonomy are of high value, even trusted messengers such as pastors, whose views might prove persuasive, rarely broach the topic.
Galen Crippen could be ideally positioned to assume the role of “trusted source” in the slow-moving campaign to persuade reluctant Kansans to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.
As pastor of the Sharon Springs United Methodist Church in Wallace County, Crippen is a respected community leader. Dozens of people file into his church on Sundays to hear what he has to say.
Crippen takes the virus seriously, and worries that some of his parishioners don’t.
“They’re still struggling to believe it’s real,” he says. “I think a lot of them think that because we live out here and there are few people here that we’re safe. It worries me because we now have had nine new cases, like within a week.”
Health officials are also worried about Wallace County, a sparsely populated county on the Colorado border. Less than a third of its approximately 1,500 residents have been fully vaccinated and throughout August the county Health Department has been recording several new COVID-19 cases each week. As of Aug. 16 the county had six active COVID-19 cases, with a few people recently recovered.
But Crippen is not quite willing to assume the mantle of trusted source – someone who will encourage vaccinations through example and persuasion.
“To be perfectly honest, I really do not feel that our faith leaders out here have much of an influence,” he says. ”It’s not that people ignore us necessarily. But I’d say they don’t put their faith first. They put their feelings first.”
And there’s something else: Crippen himself has not gotten the vaccine. He says he has some health issues that require medications, and he worries there hasn’t been enough testing on how the shots would react with the other pharmaceuticals he’s putting into his body.
“I struggle with it,” he says. “I’m a bit of a case.”
‘We’ve diluted our trust’
Much of Kansas is struggling to persuade unvaccinated residents to get a shot.
Excitement earlier this year about the immunizations that could rein in the COVID-19 pandemic has given way to frustration and fear as people go unvaccinated and a new variant of the virus is filling up hospitals and prompting a return to mask advisories and mandates.
Slightly fewer than half of all Kansans, 49.5%, have not received a shot, according to the state Department of Health and Environment. Slightly fewer than 44% of Kansans are fully vaccinated.
Based on figures tabulated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Kansas ranks 31st nationally in percentage of the population fully vaccinated, trailing such nearby states as Colorado (nearly 56%), Iowa (about 51%), Nebraska (51%) and South Dakota (48%).
Public health experts say that unless those numbers improve, Kansas won’t be able to stop the virus from spreading. The state has logged more than 342,000 cases since the start of the pandemic early in 2020. More than 5,300 people have died.
Lagging rates in Kansas and many other states have left researchers and health leaders searching for new tactics aimed at those who are reluctant or outright hostile to rolling up their sleeves.
“For the most part the early messaging strategy was: ‘It’s here, it’s safe, come get it,’” says Brett Bricker, who researches vaccine skepticism as a communication studies specialist at the University of Kansas. “That has safely vaccinated a big chunk of the ready-to-go population. Now the hesitant group has very unique needs.”
Messaging campaigns will have to be crafted community by community, even neighborhood by neighborhood, Bricker says.
Latinos in Wyandotte County may have different rationales for going unvaccinated than immigrant meatpacking workers in western Kansas. Wichita’s Black residents may avoid the shots for reasons very different from white Kansans in rural counties.
“As we see the next six months unfold, I think you’re going to start seeing adaptation to localities, to counties and communities and neighborhoods, in a way that has to be really innovative and will not be one-size-fits-all,” Bricker says.
Brock Slabach, senior vice president of the National Rural Health Association, also thinks the hard work of overcoming vaccine apprehension must be done at the local level.
“We’ve diluted our trust in agencies that we’ve historically never really questioned,” he says. “And so now the transfer of this trust needs to go to a local area. We’re taking it out of the realm of the federal government and state government. And we’re making this very local and personal.”
The National Rural Health Association is embarking on a campaign to help rural hospitals and stakeholders recruit trusted community members who are willing to speak up publicly to promote vaccinations.
“Our messaging is going to be, ‘I believe in community. I believe in family. Therefore I’m vaccinated,” Slabach says. “We used to do these things because it was good for our community. It was good for our country. Now it’s like: every person for themselves.”
Christina Long, a communications specialist in the Wichita area whose work includes building trust in minority communities, agrees that finding trusted sources remains a sound strategy.
“People are comfortable with who they’re comfortable with,” she says. “They’re comfortable with people in their circles.”
Vaccine advocates have had some success recruiting pastors, barbers and other influential figures in Black communities to promote the shots. C. Richard Kirkendoll, senior pastor of Bethany Missionary Baptist Church in Wichita, says he urges his parishioners from the pulpit every Sunday to get vaccinated. Every once in a while, he says, someone surprises him by telling him they’ve gotten the first shot.
But what about communities where anti-vaccine sentiment is so prevalent and hardened that trust even at the local level has been eroded like wind-blown topsoil?
The view from Wallace County
“I think it would be better if the pandemic hadn’t started in an election year,” says Aften Gardner, administrator of the Wallace County Health Department. “We’ve just destroyed so many relationships over this.”
Like local health officials around Kansas, Gardner is worn out by fights over masking, social distancing and, now, vaccinations.
“I’ve seen this community rally and wrap their arms around each other so quickly,” she says. “But it’s all disintegrating. I’ve never seen people so vicious. “
Wallace County was the last in Kansas to record a COVID-19 case. Some of the church women formed a prayer circle along the county line in an attempt to keep the virus out.
But to date the county health department has recorded nearly 200 cases. That gives the county a rate of 132 cases per 1,000 people, slightly above the state average of 120 per 1,000 but well below the figures in the hardest hit counties.
After a raucous town hall, the County Commission last fall opted out of Gov. Laura Kelly’s mask mandate, calling it “inherently unenforceable at the county level.” The sheriff at the time, who has since retired, flatly said he wouldn’t enforce a mandate.
Vaccines have proven almost as contentious. Conversations in Sharon Springs, the county seat, revealed some susceptibility to believe the wilder conspiracy theories circulating online. At The Farmhouse Restaurant, a popular gathering place, a man said he’d seen a magnet stick to someone’s arm after a shot. A woman said she won’t get the vaccine because she’s read that it’s made with “baby fetuses.” (It’s not.)
“For as much as everyone wants to say they don’t believe in conspiracy theories, I’ve listened to some things,” says Becky Samuelson, who manages the Mount Sunflower Bed and Breakfast. She waves her cell phone and laughs. “Like chips. Why would they need to chip us? They’ve already got us chipped.”
Samuelson hasn’t been vaccinated, but she’s thinking about it. Like some of her neighbors, she says conflicting information from the government about shots, masks and the virus itself has put her off.
“It just seems like the CDC can’t pull its head out of it’s heinie to do anything,” she says.
Ted Bussen, a military veteran and retired air traffic controller who was having lunch at The Farmhouse, agrees with Samuelson. “We never felt like we were getting good, accurate information,” he says. “The more I try to learn, the less I know.”
But Bussen has gotten his shots. “That was important to me, at my age,” he says.
Sitting amidst a group of neighbors who seem set against vaccination, Bussen appears comfortable acknowledging he’s gotten the shots and no one challenges him for doing so. What seems to matter most is the right to make one’s own choice.
His cousin, Butch Bussen, is also vaccinated. He says he’s fine with making that decision, but he won’t go into any business that requires a mask.
“I’m tired of being controlled,” he says. “We’re all a bunch of rebels out here.”
Perhaps because of this insistence on personal autonomy, advocacy for the vaccine in Sharon Springs is at best lukewarm. No local elected officials, school leaders or clergy have spoken up strongly on behalf of vaccinations. One pastor recently spent a week in a nearby hospital recovering from the virus.
The county health department gamely promotes the COVID-19 shots on its Facebook page and Gardner thinks a silent majority of citizens back her efforts.
“It’s just that the naysayers are awfully loud,” she says.
Etta L. Walker, a lawyer, believes in vaccinations as a service to the community. “We see a lot of discussion about individual liberty,” she says. “But freedom doesn’t work if it doesn’t come with responsibility.”
Walker, one of the few outspoken Democrats in town, draws more scorn than respect from some of her conservative neighbors over her vaccine advocacy and policy of requiring masks in her office.
“People mock that and they drive by my office praying for me,” she says. “But, hey, I don’t have COVID.”
Always room for education
Chrysanne Grund, project director for Greeley County Health Services, is not discouraged or even surprised by the low vaccine numbers in western Kansas.
“It’s health care,” she says, while visiting the network’s clinic in Wallace County. “If we absolutely understood how to educate people to do what they ought to do, no one would be obese, no one would be diabetic. No one would smoke, no one would be an alcoholic. We know how to educate for that. It all comes down to personal choice.”
Vaccine coercion efforts that are popping up in cities won’t work in rural counties, Grund says. A restaurant could not require that customers show proof of vaccination and hope to stay in business.
“It would not play well,” Grund says. “We all have to work together and rely on each other out here.”
While the trusted sources coveted by other communities, like pastors, aren’t jumping up to advocate vaccines, Grund sees plainspoken efforts taking place.
Her husband, a cattle rancher, has gotten his shots. “I vaccinate my cattle to keep them safe and healthy,” he tells skeptical friends. “Why wouldn’t I do that for myself?”
“I think there’s always room for education,” Grund says. “I think there’s always room for people to consider their best options. I do believe it takes time. It should be approached with some strategy as opposed to urgency that begins to smack of force, because that does push people in the opposite direction.”
Primary care physicians and health providers at Greeley County Health Services talk to patients about vaccines at every visit, Grund says.
“There’s a great deal of trust with primary care providers. Will they change their minds? Maybe not, but they will have learned something.”
Gardner sees the influence of physicians, as patients trickle into Wallace County’s health department asking to be vaccinated.
“We have people come in and they’re like, ‘I really didn’t want to get it.’” she says. “But I went to my heart specialist. I went to my gastro doctor. And they were like, ‘You have to get this shot.’ So I guess I better get it.”
In Wallace County, where conservative news channels prevail and where residents chafe at even a suggestion that appears to come from the federal government, any softening of hostility toward the vaccine is celebrated by health officials.
Back at The Farmhouse, Mike Pipkin, who watches the Newsmax channel because he thinks his former favorite, Fox News, turned on former President Donald Trump, says he has gotten his shots.
“I might get the virus, but I won’t get it as bad,” he says.
Pipkin is having lunch with Crippen, the Methodist pastor, and Crippen’s wife, Sheryl, who is thinking about getting her shots. “Reading about the new variant and how it’s spreading, that’s sort of moving me toward, maybe I ought to get it,” she says.
And Crippen? He’s still struggling.
“I guess I got to the point where I’m thinking, ‘God’s gotten me this far,’” Crippen says. “If he’s still got plans for me, I’m going to still be here.”
Then he laughs. Because now he’s talking just the way he wishes his parishioners wouldn’t. “I would never say that if you believe in God you shouldn’t get the shot,” he says.
But for the moment, like so many other potential “trusted sources” across the state, he’s also not telling people they should.
(Editor’s note: The Kansas Leadership Center, publisher of The Journal, is contracted with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to encourage groups to develop locally tailored action projects related to vaccinations and testing through the Kansas Beats the Virus initiative.)
Read more about the leadership challenges facing Kansas communities in the Summer 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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