Christine Herman / WILL
When he was first eligible for the coronavirus vaccine in Illinois, 68-year-old Tom Arnold says he didn’t need convincing. He raises cattle, pigs and chickens in Elizabeth, a small rural town in the northwestern corner of the state.
After all, who better to understand why herd immunity is important than a pastor?
“As a livestock producer, I know vaccines and vaccines well,” he says. “This is how we develop immunity in our animals. We are always vaccinating breeding cattle to transmit immunity to the young.”
Increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates in rural America is now less of an access issue and more of a trust issue. Only about 40% of the people in the county where Arnold lives, Jo Daviess, are fully vaccinated, so he doesn’t understand why people are acting like the pandemic is over. Scientists say parts of the country that are not vaccinated, like Jo Daviess, are at serious risk, especially as the more contagious delta variant spreads rapidly.
That’s why farmers and ranchers should speak openly about why they chose to get vaccinated, he says Carrie Cochran-McClain, Policy Director for the National Rural Health Association.
“One of the hardest things about the vaccination effort is that it really comes down to this kind of one-on-one conversation at this point,” he says.
Can @BeefRunner power vaccines?
The Cochran-McClain association has partnered with the National Farmers Union to try to get more farmers to promote the vaccine in their rural communities. They have created a online toolkit for rural farmers with information and talking points to start conversations.
Goodman has been using his social media accounts to engage with his followers about the vaccine. He says he’s not sure he’s changed his mind, but is encouraged when skeptics who don’t seem convinced come back to chatter more.
“I’m a fan of saying that no conversation changes someone’s mind, especially when you disagree on an issue that can be as hot or as political as vaccines,” says Goodman.
He would like to see more farmers talking because in rural cities farmers have long roots, going back generations, making them more trustworthy than even health experts, he says.
“Everybody looks at Joe on the road and thinks, ‘Hey, you know, what his experiences might be on this topic or this topic?’ “Says Goodman. “[And they] listen to what he or she may say. “
Larry Lieb farms 92 acres of soybeans and lumber in central Illinois and also raises some cows and pigs.
He says he wondered if the vaccine could be safe, given how quickly it reached the market, and actually only got it for one reason.
“My daughter is a respiratory therapist and she told me she was going to get it,” says Lieb. “Plain and simple.”
Unlike some of his relatives, Lieb says he doesn’t believe conspiracy theories about the vaccine. But he says he avoids those conversations altogether.
“It’s your own personal choice,” he says. “In matters where they settle in their own way, you know, it’s useless to try.”
Less COVID-19, more agriculture
The pandemic has had a huge economic impact on farmers, says Mike Stranz, vice president of defense for the National Farmers Union.
“There has been so much turmoil in the agricultural economy and in our communities,” says Stranz. “We have to start to overcome that, and vaccines are the way to that. [goal]. “
Vaccination rates have consistently lagged in rural communities; and an analysis by NPR and Johns Hopkins University in June found that new COVID-19 hot spots are popping up in areas with dangerously low vaccination rates, especially in the South, Midwest and West.
Urban and rural areas have been seeing similar rates of new COVID-19 cases lately, according to an analysis from the University of Iowa. But some states, including Illinois, Missouri and Utah, are seeing higher rates in non-metropolitan areas.
Recent surveys suggest that the majority of unvaccinated people I don’t want the vaccine.
But Cochran-McClain says he hopes farmers don’t get discouraged, and says he has this message for people like Lieb: “He may not feel like his voice is great, but we think it’s very strong and important.”
Tom Arnold says he thinks the vaccine saves lives, but he doesn’t think it’s his job to try to convince his neighbors or friends.
It also has a limited capacity for new challenges.
“I’m already overworked and underpaid,” says Arnold. The launch of the vaccine, so far, has coincided with some of the busiest times of the year for farmers.
If you start a conversation with someone about the vaccine, you say that you will express to them that you are a livestock producer and that you understand how they work.
“But I don’t give more details,” says Arnold. “Unless people ask me. And they usually don’t.”
This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes Illinois Public Media, Side Effects Public Media, NPR, and Kaiser Health News.
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