Demand for COVID-19 vaccines across Montana is falling. Health officials in many counties say the decline is in part due to vaccine hesitancy, which could make reaching herd immunity difficult. But there are efforts to convince those who are still on the fence to get their shot.
Lincoln County Public Health Manager Jen McCully stepped inside Scheer Bros. Hobbies in downtown Libby, looking for people willing to take a handful of leftover Pfizer and Moderna vaccines from her weekly clinic.
Behind the front desk and surrounded by remote control cars and planes stands owner Steven Scheer, who said he has been hesitant about getting a shot because he has already had COVID-19.
"I’ve always kind of been on the edge about it, just because I-don’t-want-to-get-sick-again kind of thing," he explained. "It’s just pretty much just me just worrying about nothing."
After a quick conversation, the 32-year-old agreed to get his shot right inside his store.
"Ok, umm ... let me go Pfizer," Scheer said.
Vaccine hesitancy is part of why demand for shots has fallen dramatically, according to McCully, even while just 32% of Lincoln County’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. But she believes there are still people like Scheer who can be won over — and others who are not going out of their way to get a shot.
"If we go to the grocery store, we have people that are like, 'Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to try to get in, but just haven’t, so I’ll take it,'" McCully explained.
Lincoln County is not alone in its struggles. Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton is seeing a slowing vaccine campaign, too.
"We have seen in the last four weeks, we’ve gone from filling 90% of our available first-dose slots to 50 to about 38 to about 25 this week," he said.
Gen. Matt Quinn is the head of Montana’s COVID-19 task force, and he says a majority of counties across the state are seeing demand fall and are consequently asking for fewer vaccines week to week.
"So we have seen counties that might have left-over vaccines from previous weeks," Quinn said. "We’re seeing them say, 'Hey, let’s pause for a week. We won’t draw from the feds or the state this week.'"
Quinn said the state health department plans to launch a public vaccine campaign this week. Montana is also working with its counties to identify pockets of unvaccinated people. It is encouraging counties to reach out to major employers, or to stand-up clinics at churches in order to bring the vaccine to people.
"We’re going to be reaching out to those who aren’t sure and try to get them to get the vaccine," Quinn said. "We’re going to work to make it more convenient for those who said, 'Yeah, I’ll get it,' and maybe don’t have the time or don’t want to go find it."
The state has not identified a goal for a statewide vaccination rate, but many county health officials across Montana say 70% would likely provide adequate community protection. Reaching that level in many communities could be difficult, though.
Survey data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that at least one quarter of Montana’s population is hesitant about getting COVID vaccines — one of the highest rates in the nation.
Rural communities across the country have a steeper hill to climb when it comes to battling this problem, according to Ashley Kirzinger, Kaiser Family Foundation’s director for public opinion and survey research.
"There are specific groups, regardless of where you live, that are the most vaccine-resistant," she said. "They tend to be Republicans, white evangelicals — and rural America just has a larger share of them in their population."
One in five rural Americans that say they definitely won’t take a COVID vaccine, and Kirzinger said survey data shows it will be nearly impossible to sway them. She added there is still progress to be made with the roughly 15% of the rural population that is still on the fence. A little over half of that group leans Republican.
"As they’ve seen few people get side effects, they’ve moved from that wait-and-see to now they’re getting vaccinated, so that’s really encouraging," Kirzinger said.
Back at the hobby shop in Libby, William Jennings came in to buy some cards for the fantasy-based card game Magic. The 37-year-old considers himself to be a part of that wait-and-see group, but has been thinking more about getting vaccinated as he resurrects last year's plans to visit family.
"We’re going to Eugene, Oregon, to go visit my brother and sister, and he’s coming from Philadelphia," Jennings said.
Having the shot presented to him made the decision easy for Jennings.
Lincoln County health officials say vaccine hesitancy will likely stand in the way of reaching herd immunity, but that fact is not stopping them from convincing those like Jennings one at a time.