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Fight against COVID-19 hits wall of defiance, suspicion in rural California

Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

RED BLUFF, Calif. — Jeremiah Fears sat beneath an elk head mounted on the wall of the volunteer fire department in his little city and rolled up his sleeve for what he hopes is a step toward normality: his first dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.

“If we can get vaccinated and do our thing to protect one another and ourselves, we can hurry up and open and go from there,” said Fears, chief of the Corning Police Department. “I know there’s controversy behind it. But it is what it is.”

Fears had come to a vaccination clinic in Corning — population 7,600 — aimed at firefighters and police officers. But in that fire station was a hint of the pandemic skepticism that runs deep in rural Northern California: two elderly people, both on dialysis, who were coming to get their shots.

They had been put on standby because Tehama County health officials, who only brought two small vials containing 20 doses, suspected they might not attract enough firefighters or police officers to use them all.

In the battle against COVID-19, health officials in Northern California face the daunting task of vaccinating more than 683,300 people spread across a mountainous, heavily forested region where calamity — either from illness or physical trauma — can mean hourslong drives to the nearest medical facility.

Among their biggest obstacles: overcoming widespread skepticism that the virus is a serious threat in far-flung towns, fear that the new vaccine is unsafe, and open rebellion against health orders. The pushback in rural parts of California is emblematic of the challenge in many parts of the United States, particularly outside more liberal urban centers.

 

“We’re getting very frustrated here in Northern California,” said Dr. Richard Wickenheiser, the Tehama County health officer. “We have a lot of anti-vaxxers and a lot of independent people who just feel that COVID was a hoax, that it was going to go away when the election was over. And that didn’t happen. ... The excuses just go on and on.”

Public health messaging, he said, “isn’t working.”

In Shasta County, some speakers at supervisors’ meetings have compared mask mandates to Nazis forcing Jewish people to wear a yellow Star of David and spouted conspiracy theories about vaccines containing tracking devices. The county health officer has been threatened repeatedly.

In Tehama County, where indoor dining is banned by the state, restaurants were still seating maskless customers in recent days. In downtown Red Bluff, signs in store windows read: “Please respect everyone’s personal space. ... Masks are welcome, but not required” and “Due to pre-existing health conditions, some of the staff are not wearing a face mask” and “MASKS OK.”

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