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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

Matt Sullivan, 46, of Cairo said he refuses to get a COVID-19 vaccine, referring to it as “the government implant device shot.”

“They ain’t trackin’ me with a radio implant device disguised as the miracle cure to the COVIDs,” he said. “I read about this in high school in an Orwell novel. No thank you, ma’am. They’re gonna have to get smarter than that to trick me.”

This tracking device myth was among the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 vaccines that Illinois public health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike addressed and dispelled at a May virtual town hall on COVID-19 for southern Illinois.

“We really have to get away from the misinformation that’s costing us our lives, literally,” she said. “Because everyone has access to this vaccine, right now. There is a pharmacy near you. There’s a mass vaccination site. There’s a pop-up clinic. There’s a religious institution. … There’s something within a few miles of everyone. And to pass it up, unfortunately, and get COVID thereafter and not have a favorable course, it’s really a tragedy.”

At the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Alexander County borders Missouri and Kentucky, another state where COVID cases have recently spiked.

Nearly a quarter of Alexander County’s 5,760 residents live in poverty and it is among the poorest counties in the state, according recent census figures. Almost 8% of those under 65 have no health insurance; only about 65% of households have a computer, compared with 89% of households in Cook County, according to the census.

Poverty, lack of insurance and less access to computers have been factors linked to lower vaccine uptake or intent to get the shot, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research.

The area also skews conservative politically, with nearly 57% of Alexander County voting for Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Research has found that COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy tends to be high among those who identify as Republican.

Other counties covered by the Southern Seven Health Department have higher vaccination rates than Alexander County, though still below the state average.

Nearly 38% of neighboring Union County and just over 33% of nearby Johnson County is fully vaccinated, according to state statistics. Those counties have larger populations than Alexander County; they’ve also had higher COVID-19 case counts and deaths, Ryder said.

He added that the vaccination percentage in Alexander County might be a little higher than Illinois statistics indicate because some residents likely got immunized in adjacent Missouri, particularly in the nearby Cape Girardeau area.

Missouri public health data shows more than 23,500 Illinois residents have received either the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot or the first shot of a two-dose vaccine regimen in Missouri; more than 1,600 Illinois residents did so in Cape Girardeau County. But none of the data is broken down by the Illinois county where the patient lives, so it’s unclear how many might have gone to Missouri from Alexander County.

One resident who traveled to Missouri for the shot was Joe Aden, 81, who had served for 40 years as mayor of East Cape Girardeau, Illinois.

He got two doses of the Moderna vaccine in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, about a half-mile from his home.


“I just think it protects you from the virus as much as can be,” said Aden, who stepped down as mayor earlier this year.

There were indications that vaccine hesitancy would be a hurdle in southern Illinois even before the shots were available, Ryder said.

Social distancing and adherence to pandemic protocols was spotty, he said. There were areas were masking rules were followed and there were places where the guidelines were largely ignored.

He recalled going grocery shopping at the height of the pandemic in Pope County, where he lives.

“I would put my mask on and I would get strange stares from everyone else in the store, because they weren’t wearing masks,” he said. “We’re talking January, February. People were just wandering without a mask on. That was something you could see all across the region.”

Some restaurants and bars remained open, flouting the state executive order, he recalled.

“So we knew just based on the demographics and makeup of the area, and just the response that was being put out there during the pandemic, that vaccines were, that was going to be a difficult process,” he said.

Despite the low vaccination rate in the region, hair stylist Angie Bell said she feels pretty well-protected.

The owner of Hair Works in Cairo got her Moderna shots earlier this year. She continues to mask at work for her own safety and to put customers at ease, because some are still leery of the virus.

Bell estimated that about three-quarters of her patrons are vaccinated but noted that they come from all over the area, including Missouri, Kentucky and other counties in Illinois.

She said the remaining quarter either fear side effects from the vaccine or equate the shots with some form of government control.

“I get some really bizarre stories,” she said. “I’m a vaccine believer myself and I was not scared of it. I felt lucky to get one.”

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