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'We’ve Hit A Wall': As Cases Surge, Health Officials Say Convincing Unvaccinated To Get The Shot Is Harder Than Ever

trevor kevin.jpg
Patty Wight
Maine Public
RN Kelly Pressey administers the vaccine to Trevor Kervin of Oakland.

COVID-19 has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated, who are driving up case numbers and landing in hospitals. In Maine, vaccination rates vary widely from county to county. Cumberland has the highest at 74%. The lowest rate is in Somerset County, where a little more than 50% have received a final dose. Efforts to boost those numbers are becoming increasingly difficult.

In sheer land area, Somerset is the third largest county in Maine. Its southern tip begins just outside of Waterville and stretches north beyond Jackman to the Canadian border. But its sparsely populated, just 50,000 people live here. Skowhegan, the county seat, is home to about 8,000 people and for some, the question of whether they'll get the COVID-19 vaccine elicits a decisive response.

"No," says Brianna Brooks, 20, as she loads groceries into her car in the Walmart parking lot. She says she doesn't see the point. "I mean I read up on things, and it doesn't prevent you from getting it or giving it, so no sense in being poked."

A few others here say they don't plan on getting the vaccine either. They're young and healthy, they say, and figure they'll easily recover if they get COVID. Even some who are vaccinated shrug off others' decisions to not get the shot. As Jess Vaillancourt of Madison loads her 7-month-old son into a shopping cart, she says she's not too worried about the current surge, or that Somerset County has the lowest vaccination rate in the state.

"I mean, if people want to get vaccinated I think that's their choice," Vaillancourt says.

It's a choice that's driving up cases and landing more people in hospitals. But convincing the unvaccinated to get the shot has never been more difficult.

Patty Wight
Maine Public
From left: Lisa Landry, director if HR at Redington-Fairview, nurse Kelly Pressey, Dr. Donna Conkling, Lisa Caswell, director of pharmacy at Redington-Fairview

"We’ve hit a wall," says Lisa Caswell, the director of pharmacy at Redington-Fairview Hospital in Skowhegan. "The people who are most willing are already vaccinated. It’s going to be a much harder slog to get the persuadable vaccinated. And then there’s that whole group of people who just aren't persuadable."

Even Redington-Fairview is wrestling with one of the lowest hospital staff vaccination rates in the state. The number has gone up since Governor Janet Mills made the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for health care workers. Caswell says one-on-one conversations are also effective, though not everyone has a doctor in areas of rural Maine. So, Caswell says, she does her best to make getting the vaccine as easy as possible.

Redington-Fairview offers a drive thru clinic every Thursday afternoon. The director of human resources at the hospital, Lisa Landry, says its worked well.

"We find more people are more comfortable sitting in cars as opposed to sitting in a clinic that’s not quite as private," Landry says.

Privacy is important in a small town where views on the vaccine can run strong. Several people at the clinic decline to be interviewed about why they came. One man says his employer is against it and he doesn't want them to know. Others say they face opposition from family members. Linda and Rod Schmuland came over the protests of an adult daughter.

"She’s dead against it. Matter of fact, she was begging me not to get it," Schmuland says.

Schmuland says she and her husband decided to get the vaccine now because they want to travel. They're worried about the Delta variant. And they have a busy house. The daughter and her family live with them and have friends over.

Others say they're here because they're required to be vaccinated. 79-year-old Bill Maginnis is getting his bachelor's degree at the University of Maine in Augusta.

"I haven't had the flu in over 50 years, and I haven't got the flu shot. So I figured why should I get this, because the chances are I'm not gonna get it. But UMA says I have to get it," Maginnis says.

Some health care workers are also here because of a mandate. Karen Clark of Bingham works in a nursing home. She's angry and says she feels cornered.

"I was scared to come here, to do this, afraid something is going to happen to me afterwards," Clark says.

Clark says she came to this clinic because it's one of the few that offers the Johnson and Johnson shot. Landry says many come specifically for the J&J.

"A lot of them are very nervous. And so the Johnson and Johnson is one shot, they're gonna just get it done and not talk themselves out of it and just be done," Landry says.

The range of emotions at this clinic - nervous, resigned, resentful- are different from the relief conveyed during early vaccine clinics. But some are excited.

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Patty Wight
Maine Public
Brenda Lane waits to get her second dose from retired physician Donna Conkling.

"It feels great!" says Brenda Lane of Winslow. She held off on getting the shot until now because she has a lot of allergies and worried she'd have a reaction. But enough time passed that she finally felt comfortable rolling up her sleeve. She's getting her second shot, and she wants others to know her first dose was fine.

"People, go get it. It’s not as bad as you think it is," Lane says.

A total of 37 people did at this clinic last Thursday, August 26. Pharmacy director Lisa Caswell says that's above average for the summer. But it's only a chink in the wall that health workers now face in their effort to reach the unvaccinated.