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Coronavirus

Rural County Health Officials Face Uphill Battle Trying To Encourage More Vaccinations

The Fayette County Fair midway.
Nick Evans
/
WOSU
The Fayette County Fair midway.

A stream of kids are piling off the Spin-a-Tron, while a line of others wait anxiously, standing as tall as they can next to the height marker. Others race up and down the Fayette County Fair midway, while Natasha Howard waits for her kids to hop off a tiny train.

“Pretty much the whole clan right here in the middle, besides that little boy—I don’t know who that is,” Howard said with a laugh.

Kids headed onto the Spin-A-Tron.
Nick Evans
Kids headed onto the Spin-A-Tron.

The Ohio State Fair is back, but because of COVID concerns, the spectators aren’t. Meanwhile at the county level, fairs are going forward, and they’re packed. That presents a tricky balancing act as the delta variant spreads faster than Ohio’s flagging pace of vaccinations.

Howard and most of her friends and family have gotten their shots, but she can feel the pace of vaccinations slowing. That gives her pause even though she’s optimistic for the most part.

Natasha Howard and her family.
Nick Evans
Natasha Howard (second from right) and her family.

“Just because my kids hasn’t been vaccinated yet, and there’s one in particular that I’m really worried about being in contact with it,” Howard said. “But other than that it hasn’t really been a big issue.”

Fayette County actually isn’t doing that bad case-wise. They’re about middle of the pack in Ohio when it comes to cases per 100,000 people. Late last week, their rate was 28 cases per 100,000 people while the state average was 27.

But like many other rural counties their vaccination rates are low. Just 36% of residents have gotten at least one shot. That’s concerning as the Delta variant reverses Ohio’s downward trend. Although the numbers are still relatively low, in less than three weeks the average number of new cases in the state has more than doubled.

The fair is largely outside, but given the circumstances, getting thousands of relatively unvaccinated people together does present risks. Over near the barns, Bryon Ely said the sluggish pace of vaccinations does cross his mind, and like Howard, he’s concerned because of his child.

“Even in the barn you’re pretty well separated, people are here at different times and things like that,” Ely said. “But when you’re in the grandstands and it’s packed full you know there’s a little bit of concern it’s in the back of your mind, I’ll admit that, and be[ing] a little more concerned about it for my son.”

Bryon Ely
Nick Evans
Bryon Ely

County health officials are hoping the big turnout might offer an opportunity to gain ground. Fayette County immunization coordinator Amy Friel is staffing a tent ready to answer questions and schedule people for vaccines. But it’s been a tough sell. Traffic is down, and those who aren’t vaccinated aren’t really interested in talking about getting a shot.

There are 30 people signed up for vaccinations in the next two weeks, but after four days working at the fair, county nurses were only been able to net one new appointment for their efforts. Friel said it would be nice if they could actually administer shots right away.

“If there was a way for us to put it in a single-dose vial, and get out there oh we’d be all over it,” Friel said. “I’d be all over the place, just hey do you want your vaccine? I’ve got it right now.”

Amy Friel, left, with fellow Fayette County Public Health nurse Kris Wright at the health department's tent.
Nick Evans
Amy Friel, left, with fellow Fayette County Public Health nurse Kris Wright at the health department's tent.

Vaccines show up in multi-dose vials that require refrigeration. So, to distribute them without waste Friel really needs groups of people. Instead, it’s 80-plus outside and even with fans and a cooler full of bottled water to lure in passersby, the health department tent isn’t exactly drawing a crowd.

“I mean most of the parents who are at the fair, their kids are showing, and they’re running back and forth, and if we were able to get them at that 15 minute downtime when they’re taking that breath, I think it would be amazing,” Friel said. “It’s just it’s not possible with the way the vaccine has to be stored.”

State health officials stepped in to help run a vaccine clinic at the Lucas County Fair earlier this month, and some counties like Butler, Columbiana and Pickaway are setting up vaccine drives of their own at the fair. A spokeswoman for the state health department also referenced their outreach to agriculture groups like 4-H and Future Farmers of America to provide information and encourage vaccinations in rural communities.