How one Tennessee county vaccinated nearly every vulnerable adult against COVID-19

·6 min read

Aug. 5—DECATUR, Tenn. — July marked the first time since March 2020 — when much of the world shut down in response to the novel coronavirus — that members of the Meigs County Senior and Adult Center could gather at the facility.

They must still sit 6 feet apart, which means members can't play their favorite card games, but those who are fully vaccinated are no longer required to wear face masks — though some still do anyway.

Pool, a popular source of entertainment among the men, and bingo, which is the women's favorite, are set to resume in the coming days. Last week, Ruby Colbaugh taught some of the members how to make colorful paper flowers that now line the windowsill. Eventually, the flowers will be used to decorate the center's seasonal tree.

Clyde Howard and Leon Ricker banter in the back of the room until they're scolded by some of the members for being too loud. Ricker turns his attention to clipping articles from the day's newspaper he deems worthy enough for his scrapbook.

Life at the senior center isn't the same as before the pandemic, but it's closer.

"It's good to talk to people again," said member Bonnie Appelt, who underwent major heart surgery in August. Her doctor was the one who told her she needed to get vaccinated once COVID-19 shots became available.

"I wish everybody would get their shot, just to be safe for them and us," Appelt said. "You don't hear about people dying from the shot — they have people dying without it."

Tennessee is among the states with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the country, with a population that's 39% fully vaccinated in comparison to the United States as a whole, which is 50% fully vaccinated.

Since the beginning of the state's vaccination effort, Meigs County has stood out among other Tennessee counties for its above-average vaccination rate. Overall, Meigs County has vaccinated a higher percentage of its residents than every county except for Williamson — the healthiest county in Tennessee, according to the annual County Health Rankings from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The 2021 County Health Rankings placed Meigs County 80th out of the state's 95 counties, with 95th being the least healthy.

Most notably, Meigs County is the only county in Tennessee and one of only 43 counties in the United States to vaccinate more than 99% of its population aged 65 and older, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated Aug. 4.

Although anyone regardless of age can die due to COVID-19, older adults are especially vulnerable to the most serious and fatal outcomes of the disease. As of Wednesday, the Tennessee Department of Health had reported a total of 12,783 coronavirus deaths since the start of the pandemic, with nearly 11,000 of those deaths occurring in Tennesseans over age 60.

Meigs County still as a whole has vaccinated 50% of its population, meaning it still has a long way to go toward ultimately curbing the pandemic, particularly as the highly contagious delta variant sweeps across the nation. However, by vaccinating most of its oldest residents, Meigs has gone a long way toward keeping its coronavirus-related mortality rate lower, said Dr. Timothy Callaghan, an assistant professor of public health at Texas A&M University.

"If an older person [who was vaccinated] were to be exposed to the virus, they'll be less likely to get the virus and less likely to have a serious illness," Callaghan said. "What they have not done is much to prevent the spread of the virus, because the virus will still continue to spread across the entire population. And individuals who are, for example, in their 50s, or even 40s, could still be very much at risk."

Still, ranking among the most vaccinated counties in the state is a significant feat at a time when rural vaccine resistance is at a record high and when compared to other counties in the state such as nearby Grundy County, which has fully vaccinated just 19% of its residents and 47% of those age 65 and up.

Callaghan said that many factors contribute to vaccine hesitancy in rural communities, including political and religious ideologies.

Beyond vaccine hesitancy, rural communities are hindered in that the health systems are less robust and sometimes non-existent, meaning residents are more likely to face access issues that prevent them from getting vaccinated when compared to urban and suburban residents.

Callaghan said grassroots efforts and messaging from trusted sources remain some of the most effective ways of combating vaccine hesitancy, especially when it comes to rural communities that can be more wary of outsiders.

"The trick is to identify those champions and to provide those champions the resources they need to allow them to do the work of increasing vaccination rates in their local communities," he said. "You need to find ways to get into these communities, to have individuals who are active in these communities to help you with that process of going door to door and getting individuals vaccinated."

Meigs County Emergency Services Director Tony Finnell, a lifelong resident who seemingly knows nearly everyone in the tight-knit community of just over 12,000 people, played a major role in boosting the county's vaccination rate from the start.

Speaking in March after a vaccination event at the Emergency Management Agency headquarters, Finnell said that the county's small population gave it a significant advantage when it comes to getting shots in arms.

"It is still very much family-oriented around here, and I think people trust our health care providers and our emergency services. We carry a strong testimony with us when we go out on the streets that this stuff does work," he said.

Older residents were especially eager and anxious to get the vaccine when it became available, Finnell said.

"I never realized we had that big of a population in the county till it started coming, but it was almost a life or death decision for them," he said.

For Meigs to get this far, Finnell said, it took the whole community coming together.

"It's the school system, the sheriff's department, the organizations, the hardware store, the grocery store, the department of health. We have people that live and work and make their everyday business in our county, so these are the people spreading the word," he said. "Yes, I am too, but the thing about it is that it's not just one mouth, it's many that's out here speaking positive."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com.

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