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The Illinois county with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate faces steep challenges getting shots in arms: 'We could very easily slip backward'

Angie Leventis Lourgos, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

To her, the vaccines seemed to come out very quickly; even though research shows the shots are safe and effective, the young woman feared side effects or long-term health consequences. She added that she feels safer from the virus because she lives in a small, less-dense area as opposed to a crowded city — although COVID-19 has hit urban regions and rural communities alike.

“Because we live in a very open place,” she said. “It’s pretty country. Houses aren’t close together.”

When vaccines came out in December, the Southern Seven Health Department had a waitlist of 7,000 names eager to get the shot, Ryder said. The health department covers about 69,000 residents spread out across 2,000 square miles, roughly the size of Delaware.

At first, six nurses were trying to vaccinate residents in seven counties. Then two Illinois National Guard teams came to help in March, and the health department was at times vaccinating 140 people in a two-hour period, Ryder said.

Vaccine was available at pop-up clinics, mass vaccination sites and health department clinic offices, he said. A Wellness on Wheels mobile clinic went from county to county each day, offering vaccine.

But by about mid-April, demand seemed to dry up.


“Then it was like crickets after that,” he said. “It was like the faucet was turned off at that point.”

When vaccine rollout began in the winter, the health department polled residents from the seven-county area about their intentions to get vaccinated. The results weren’t promising: About 60% of respondents said they weren’t interested in getting the shot, Ryder said.

Some seemed on the fence, expressing vaccine hesitancy or a desire to wait until more people got the shot first. Others were more set in their ways.

“They weren’t going to be told to get the vaccine,” Ryder said. “They didn’t think it was necessary to get one. And that’s a hard mentality to work with. That puts you in the position of trying to lead a horse to water and making it drink. You can lead the horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink the water.”


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