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Why Vaccination Has Stayed Low And Case Counts High In This Colorado County


More than half of Americans are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But across the country, there are pockets where rates are much lower and hospitalizations are high. That includes the most populous county in western Colorado. Colorado Public Radio's Stina Sieg reports.

STINA SIEG, BYLINE: In the red-rock, high desert of Mesa County, health care workers are exhausted.

THOMAS TOBIN: We just got to keep going because there is no other option.

SIEG: Dr. Thomas Tobin is the chief medical officer for Community Hospital. Mesa County has some of the highest infection rates in the state. Hospitals are near or at capacity nearly every day.

TOBIN: So far, the admissions that I've seen in the last six weeks or so have all been unvaccinated people.

SIEG: And Dr. Tobin sees only one way out.

TOBIN: Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate is the same way we got out of polio and smallpox, and we can go through the list, right?

SIEG: But fewer than 40% of Mesa County residents 12 and older have been fully vaccinated. Some point to conspiracy theories that have been circulating online. Others, like Deidre Kuechler, believe the vaccines were developed too quickly.

DEIDRE KUECHLER: I don't think enough was done. I think we're rushing a lot of things.

SIEG: Health officials say the vaccines were based on research that had been in the works for decades. A big infusion of federal funding and ample study volunteers helped speed testing and development without cutting corners. But that's not enough for Kuechler, a pharmacy tech and mom to three young kids.

KUECHLER: We don't know the effects down the road.

SIEG: Here in the small city of Grand Junction, few businesses are enforcing masks or social distancing. The county says those restrictions are no longer needed for anyone who's vaccinated. But the problem is so few residents are. That does not surprise Sue Vorhees.

SUE VORHEES: No, they're people that stand up for what they believe in and choose to do as they want to do.

SIEG: Vorhees, sitting at a park, spent her career as a nurse at local hospitals. She survived COVID and is not vaccinated, against her doctor's advice.

VORHEES: It's like, I've worked in medicine. I will make my own choices.

SIEG: Which she says may include a vaccine at some point - but with COVID-19 variants rampant, local health officials are trying to get people vaccinated now. And they've got a new tactic - money.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Did he say cash?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, and a lot of it. We're giving away $500 twice a week. But that's not all. This giveaway isn't like others. The more people to be vaccinated, the bigger the prize.


SIEG: That's an ad for what the county is calling its Big Shot Campaign. The state is also offering a chance at prizes of a million dollars to people who get the shots. But there's still not a run on vaccinations at the Mesa County Health Department.

DAN WITT: Hello. Come on up. Here for the vaccinations today.

SIEG: Volunteer Dan Witt greets a slow but steady line, including this 13-year-old.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I just think you should get the vaccine so it could be, you know, over quicker and we can just go back to normal life.

SIEG: He and his sister actually got COVID-19 last month but are now fine. He doesn't want to share his name because he doesn't want to be ridiculed by his classmates.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: They've, like, listened to the conspiracy theories. And they're like - they're definitely not going to get it and don't think anyone should.

SIEG: Last weekend, Mesa County's largest hospital saw its biggest increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, the vaccination rate here has stayed pretty much flat. For NPR News, I'm Stina Sieg in Grand Junction, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stina Sieg