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This rural, red Southern county was a vaccine success story. Not anymore

Brett Kelman, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

Schaffner wondered: What if Meigs County gave Tennessee leaders misplaced confidence in rural vaccination efforts?

“Good data don’t guarantee good decisions,” Schaffner said. “But faulty data — aha! — you can be sure they lead to bad decisions.”

In Meigs County, residents said they had long been skeptical of such high vaccination statistics in an area where many openly distrust the vaccines. When told of the data error, some lamented the county’s once-enviable rate. Some shrugged. Few were surprised.

“If I had a million dollars and I could place a bet, I would have bet this place wasn’t the highest,” said Steven Woisin, owner of a Meigs County hemp shop, who said he has caught COVID-19 twice and remains unvaccinated.

Betty Pillion, a longtime resident who works in the county mayor’s office, insisted the data error should not overshadow the county’s uphill efforts to vaccinate every willing resident — even if the total was ultimately less than half.

“To be from this county and know that we worked hard enough to get to 44%, we’ll take it,” Pillion said. “That’s better than 10%. Or 0%.”


Sarah Tanksley, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health, first confirmed the ZIP code problem in February and said a software update from STChealth was expected to fix it. The health department stopped waiting for that software update on April 1 and tasked its staff with geocoding vaccination data to the correct counties.

This fix shuffled the rates and rankings of counties on Tennessee’s COVID-19 website, with the most dramatic shifts occurring among smaller and narrow counties with more partial ZIP codes. The CDC still publishes the incorrect statistics daily.

The Department of Health declined to provide any official to discuss the data error in detail or answer further questions. STChealth initially agreed to an interview with KHN but canceled after being provided more details about the focus of this article. The company did not respond to additional requests for comment.

There are signs Tennessee knew about the data problem long before it was confirmed or corrected.


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