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Reporter Debrief: A Look Inside Lagging Vax Uptake In Essex County

road sign
Michael Dougherty
VT Digger
In Essex County, blinking road signs with vaccine information have been placed throughout the county to urge more residents to get a COVID-19 shot.

Essex County in the northeastern corner of Vermont has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate of any county in the state. What's going on?

Data shows that 29% of residents in Essex County have received at least one shot, compared to 38% of Vermonters overall.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with VTDigger health reporter Katie Jickling, who has been reporting on this issue and recently spent some time in Essex County. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So, you report that the lower rate of vaccination in Essex County is due to a number of factors. I want to start with some of the logistical issues. How are those impacting how people are able or unable to get vaccinated?

Katie Jickling: I think it's important to remember the fact that getting to Essex County takes a long time. It's really remote. There are about an average of 10 people per square mile. And when I drove up to Beecher Falls earlier this week, I think I passed at least three signs saying, “Welcome to Canada.”

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But so, I think the challenges around that: there is no hospital in Essex County, there is no pharmacy. As a result, it makes it really tough just to get the vaccine up there, to stand up the clinics and then to get the people there to get the doses in their arms.

Are there other logistical or sort of infrastructure issues that are limiting vaccine uptake there?

For one, internet access is quite limited in some places, as is cell phone service, which can make it quite hard for certain people, especially elderly residents, to sign up for a vaccine or to be able to navigate the Health Department website.

"There is no hospital in Essex County, there is no pharmacy. As a result, it makes it really tough just to get the vaccine up there, to stand up the clinics and then to get the people there to get the doses in their arms." - Katie Jickling, VTDigger

There’s also the fact that Essex County is on the border, not only with Canada, but also New Hampshire. And as you reported, a lot of residents, particularly in the town of Canaan, get their health care in New Hampshire. But then they're not able to get vaccinated in New Hampshire, right?

Right. So, New Hampshire has set up a policy where they will only vaccinate New Hampshire residents. So that means that even Vermonters who have their primary care doctor in New Hampshire can't get the vaccine there. So that means for people in places like Canaan, they're going to have to travel to another hospital that perhaps they have never been to before or that they may not be familiar with.

And they're not necessarily getting that information from the doctor that they trust, which can also lead to increased vaccine hesitancy.

In terms of the lower vaccination rate, as you report, there are also some cultural factors at play. Do we have any evidence that people in Essex County are more hesitant than those in other areas to get the vaccine?

If you look at national studies, the people who are least likely to get the vaccine are Republican men. And Essex County is the only county in Vermont that voted for Donald Trump in 2020. So, even though I didn't explicitly hear that reasoning, just statistically speaking, that is likely playing a role.

I think the other thing that we are hearing and seeing is there's this vein of independence and self-reliance. That means that people are less likely to trust the government. They're less likely to feel like they need to depend on other people and they're less likely to value the sort of collectivism that is part of the public health communication strategy, that really persuades people to get the vaccine.

State officials have said they're “keeping an eye” on Essex County, but are state and local leaders doing anything to actually expand vaccination efforts there right now?

Last week, state officials met with some of the town clerks and local legislators and leaders in Essex County and basically asked what it would take to increase vaccine uptake. And a town clerk suggested putting up those big, blinking road signs along busier intersections. So the state did that.

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They're also having town clerks and librarians distribute fliers and share more information.

The Department of Health is also hoping to increase the number of clinics that they offer, as well as seeing if maybe it might be possible to distribute information from New Hampshire doctors, or to allow some Vermont residents to get their vaccine across the border.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp@TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
Brittany Patterson joined Vermont Public in December 2020. Previously, she was an energy and environment reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource. Prior to that, she covered public lands, the Interior Department and forests for E&E News' ClimateWire, based in Washington, D.C. Brittany also teaches audio storytelling and has taught classes at West Virginia University, Saint Michael's College and the University of Vermont. She holds degrees in journalism from San Jose State University and U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. A native of California, Brittany has fallen in love with Vermont. She enjoys hiking, skiing, baking and cuddling with her rescues, a 95-pound American Bulldog mix named Cooper, and Mila, the most beautiful calico cat you'll ever meet.
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