TURNER — State health officials set up a mobile vaccination clinic in this Androscoggin County town this month as part of a broader effort to reach communities whose populations have been less than eager to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The site administered just 552 shots over three days, about one-third of its capacity, and many who were vaccinated there drove in from other towns.
Samantha Neal was among those who passed on the opportunity to get a vaccine close to home.
“There isn’t enough research. I just don’t want that in my body,” the 34-year-old said while sitting at the counter of Bear Pond Variety, a local store and diner on the north end of town.
Would she change her mind?
“Not until I see more concrete evidence down the road,” she said. “But you can’t shame people into doing it. I don’t want to be told what to do.”
Neal’s attitude reflects feelings that are not uncommon in rural communities like Turner. There is distrust of government, distrust of science, distrust of the media. Many people here say the pandemic has been overhyped. Masks are decidedly optional in many businesses, even though a mandate for indoor gatherings is still in place statewide, at least for another week or so.
As the unprecedented vaccination effort transitions to a new stage – one in which those most eager already have gotten their shots – focus is shifting to reaching people who for whatever reason have held off. Some in that group are firm in their conviction that the vaccine isn’t for them, no matter how much their arm is twisted.
About 39 percent of Androscoggin County residents are fully vaccinated, well below the statewide rate of 46 percent. The county also has the highest rate of COVID-19 infection, 734 cases per 10,000 people, compared to 488 per 10,000 statewide.
Yet in conversations with residents and workers in Turner, several said they don’t plan on rolling up their sleeve anytime soon, if ever.
Melinda Soucy, 52, who lives one town north in Livermore, said she’s “just not comfortable” with the vaccines.
“I think it’s very rushed and I’m not sure what’s behind it all,” she said. “I actually don’t do any vaccines at all.”
She also said she wears a mask as little as possible and has never been worried about COVID-19. Asked about all the people who have died, Soucy said people die from the flu, too.
Would anything change her mind?
“I guess I’d have to see it here, see it up close,” she said, referring to the virus that has killed nearly 600,000 Americans but no one in her immediate circle. “Nobody I know has gotten sick.
“I’m just a simple person,” Soucy added. “It’s just never scared me. Maybe I should be scared, I don’t know.”
Many others, though, are truly on the fence, unsure whether they should take their chance with a virus or with the vaccine. The effort to reach those individuals is critical but nuanced. Feelings about the vaccine are split along familiar fault lines that seem to divide almost everything in this country.
According to the most recent tracking survey on vaccines from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Republicans are five times more likely to say they’ll never get the vaccine than Democrats, although that number decreased from 29 percent to 20 percent from March to April. Turner voters favored Donald Trump 60-38 percent in the 2020 presidential election, even though Joe Biden won the state 53-44 percent.
Among rural residents, 17 percent say they don’t plan to get the vaccine, compared to just 6 percent of urban residents who feel that way. Among whites who identify as evangelical Christian, 20 percent are firm no’s, compared to 13 percent of all survey respondents.
Those dynamics are true of Turner and so many other communities like it across Maine and the country, and it’s a major hurdle.
“This reluctance to get vaccinated among certain U.S. populations could threaten to derail the progress and really prolong this pandemic,” said Dr. Evan Benjamin, chief medical officer at Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health systems innovation at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The best way to get people to make a decision is really through education. We can’t impose vaccines, so we really have to persuade people and address their specific needs. Americans certainly don’t like to be told what to do.”
MOBILE CLINIC SETS UP
Jeff Timberlake, an eighth-generation Turner resident, small-business owner and minority leader of the Maine Senate, knows the people in his town well and agreed that they aren’t going to be easily swayed. The more someone tells them they need to do something, the more they might be apt to dig in their heels.
“Look, I got the vaccine, I want everyone who wants it to get the vaccine, but I think we need to have a more inclusive message,” Timberlake said in an interview. “If people see the benefits and see the state and country opening up as we see more vaccinations, they might say, ‘OK, maybe I’ll go do it, too.’”
On May 5, the mobile vaccination clinic set up in the rain in the parking lot of Boofy Quimby Memorial Center in the northern edge of Turner. The center, named in memory of a 10-year-old local boy who was killed by a drunken driver in 1976, is located a half-mile off Route 4, which runs the length of the town like a spine. Its eastern border is the Androscoggin River.
The town of nearly 6,000 residents has doubled in size since the early 1980s, when it was predominantly farmland and sawmills. It was also the longtime home of the DeCoster Egg Farm, which employed many but had a long history of health and labor violations that eventually landed its owner in prison. Turner is still a strong farming community, but it also has become a bedroom town for the Lewiston-Auburn workforce because it’s quieter and housing is inexpensive.
Traffic at the mobile site was surprisingly steady on that Wednesday given the gloomy weather, although visitors tapered off throughout the day. Many drove in from nearby communities.
Josh Morin, 39, who lives in Lewiston, said he signed up through the state’s VaccinateMe website on April 7, the first day all adults became eligible. He got a message about the mobile clinic in Turner and figured that was his best bet. He said a number of people he works with had to travel to get vaccinated and that can be a burden.
“I don’t know if it’s any one thing, but it could be there just haven’t been enough opportunities,” Morin said when asked why he thought the vaccination rate is lower in his part of the state. “I think enough people have gotten it now where people feel like it’s pretty safe. But a lot of people I know are waiting for full FDA approval, so maybe that’s part of it.”
To date, the three COVID-19 vaccines in use have received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, but not full approval. The main reason is that the process for full approval takes time and these vaccines were developed quickly to address a worldwide crisis, although they still went through rigorous trials and safety checks. The Pfizer vaccine could get full approval as early as next month and others could follow.
Morin also said the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of cases of rare blood clots in women was bad timing. That pause has been lifted and Johnson & Johnson is the vaccine Morin received.
Morin didn’t give it much thought, but the recent Kaiser survey suggests people have lost confidence in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Just 46 percent of respondents said they were very confident or somewhat confident in that vaccine, compared to 69 percent confidence in both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
“I think as long as we don’t have any of those types of issues again, people will be fine,” Morin said.
Elizabeth Haffey, who also got her shot that Wednesday, said getting the Johnson & Johnson version gave her pause, but only briefly.
“I did it anyway, though, because it’s important,” said Haffey, 29, who lives in Auburn.
Haffey said she’s been discouraged, but not necessarily surprised, by the politicization of vaccines and by people who are trying to scare others out of getting them.
Morin and Haffey are in a critical age group – one that is driving the majority of virus spread at the moment. As long as enough of them are unvaccinated, the virus will have warm bodies to infect, and to develop variants in, perhaps variants that become vaccine-resistant. Even if someone has only mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all, they are keeping the virus alive. There is growing evidence, too, that some of the variants that are circulating widely are more severe. COVID-19 hospitalizations in Maine are the highest they have been in three months and patients are trending younger.
Although Maine is among the national leaders in vaccination rate at the moment, things have plateaued. The state’s significant older population is already largely inoculated and those under the age of 50 are proving far less eager.
A study by researchers at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire found that the percentage of adults in Maine who would either definitely not or probably not get the vaccine – 22 percent – was higher than any other New England state. Massachusetts was lowest at 13.6 percent.
FEMA’s mobile site plans to visit other rural communities that have struggled to keep pace. More and more vaccinations sites everywhere are offering walk-in options and late hours as well. Incentives are increasingly being dangled.
Things are worse in other parts of the country. In March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated vaccine hesitancy for every county. In Maine, it ranged from 11 percent in Cumberland and York counties to 14 percent in Oxford, Somerset and Franklin. In some southern counties in Mississippi, as well as counties in Wyoming and North Dakota, hesitancy rates are as high as 30 percent.
Cyrus Thompson, 55, of New Gloucester said if the circumstances of his life were different, he probably wouldn’t have gotten vaccinated. But he has elderly parents and did it for them.
“I don’t necessarily believe in it,” he said at the Turner mobile site that Wednesday. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist; I just like to make it make sense in my own mind.”
But there are plenty of others who have been taken in by false claims, some of them spread by prominent people.
“We need to make sure that actual conversations are based on facts, based on listening to concerns, answering with accurate information … rather than people making decisions based on anecdotes or their Facebook feeds,” said Benjamin, the Harvard public health official.
Some people, though, simply can’t be reached.
Todd Gaudette, 59, is in the firm no category.
“I’m not getting the shot. No way. No chance,” he said. “This whole thing has been a national overreaction.”
Gaudette has been frustrated by the pandemic restrictions, especially the mask mandate, but he also doesn’t like all the public pressure about vaccines.
“Having people police each other is not a good thing,” he said. “It should be my choice.”
The challenge of reaching unvaccinated residents isn’t unique to Turner. It’s playing out in many communities.
Timberlake, the local legislator and business owner, said people need to be shown that if they get the vaccine, things will start to change. He said if life looks the same after the vaccine as before, what’s the incentive?
He also said he doesn’t think those who are anti-vaccination are all Republicans. He pointed to last year’s unsuccessful effort to overturn a new law mandating certain vaccines for children in public schools.
“Republicans, I think, believe generally that less government is better,” he said. “But I think people need to step back, take a breath and think about it. This is the way back to normalcy.”
That’s how it is for Ross Gagne, who works for the town’s fire and rescue department. He said residents in Turner are pretty tired of the pandemic and have been for a while. Gagne wasn’t thrilled to get the vaccine personally but said it’s probably the only path to getting his life back.
“I just said: Well, this is the way to move on, I guess,” he said.
Timberlake said he has a good friend who went on for months that COVID-19 was a farce, that it was made up. Two weeks ago, he ended up in the hospital for a stretch.
He said, ‘Karma is a bitch,’” Timberlake recalled, chuckling. “But he doesn’t believe it’s a farce anymore. It may take some of that.”
He also knows not everyone can be reached.
Timberlake said he has one employee he’s been trying to persuade to get vaccinated. Unsuccessfully, so far.
“I even told him, ‘I’ve got a crisp $100 bill in my pocket for you,” he said. “Even that didn’t do it.”