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Garrett County is one of the least vaccinated in Maryland. WYPR's Rachel Baye explores what's behind the trend.

No Love For COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic At Garrett County Fair

The Garrett County Agriculture Fair welcomes large crowds for rides, games and food, but not vaccines. Credit: Rachel Baye/WYPR
The Garrett County Agriculture Fair welcomes large crowds for rides, games and food, but not vaccines. Credit: Rachel Baye/WYPR

Past the ferris wheel’s flashing lights at the Garrett County Agriculture Fair, past the stands selling kettle corn and lemonade, past the pavilion where farmers’ pigs and goats competed for top prizes, two nurses and an EMT were offering free COVID-19 vaccines.

The mobile vaccine clinic, run by the Garrett County Health Department, was at the fair as part of an effort to move the needle on a vaccination rate that hasn’t budged for weeks. As of Thursday, it was the lowest vaccination rate in the state, with just less than 39 percent of the county’s roughly 29,000 residents fully vaccinated, according to state data.

However, the clinic’s workers found little enthusiasm for the vaccine at the fair.

“We’re giving COVID vaccinations down there if somebody’s interested, and we have all the three vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson,” Anthony Kangethe told people eating fries and funnel cakes at a cluster of picnic tables one afternoon.

The clinic had been open for a little more than an hour that day, the workers’ third day at the fair, but they had so far given out no vaccines. So Kangethe, a nurse who lives in Harford County, decided to make sure people knew where to find them.

Some people told him they were already vaccinated. Others simply nodded an acknowledgment that they heard his message, and Kangethe kept walking to the next table.

But Ann Collins excitedly told Kangethe she had already gotten the Moderna vaccine.

Kangethe asked her if her family had also been vaccinated.

“My family has been, except for my granddaughter. And she is here, but her mother says no,” Collins said.

Kangethe asked the reason for the resistance.

“She has talked about the fact that they are unsure of what it will do to female reproductive organs,” Collins said. “And of course, my granddaughter is going to be 15, so for that reason, she’s holding off.”

Kangethe told her the reproductive concerns are “misinformation.” The vaccines do not pose risks to fertility for any age group.

For the most part, Kangethe approached the fair-goers gently. He did not try to convince people to get the vaccine, or to tell their unvaccinated family and friends to get it.

“You don't want to intrude into their privacy,” Kangethe explained. “You don't want to push and force. It’s supposed to be a free decision, not coerced.”

The vaccine clinic was at the far end of the barn known as Exhibition Hall 1, where prize-winning fruit and vegetables, photographs and quilts were on display. It was not a busy location, but a few people walked by, including Quindin Guthrie and his wife.

Guthrie said he has cancer, so he got vaccinated at his doctor’s recommendation. His wife, who would not give her name, was not vaccinated.

“I have nothing to say about the vaccination,” Guthrie’s wife said.

“They need more study on it,” Guthrie added. “Right now, they said this here was supposed to protect you from getting it, but you still get it.”

Informed that the vaccine doesn’t infect people with COVID-19, but rather induces an immune response, Guthrie said he didn’t believe it.

“I know that’s what they said.”

Dan Duggan passed through the barn with his family. He said he and his family were vaccinated, and was surprised when his 19-year-old daughter Rachel corrected him.

Rachel said she isn’t vaccinated because she wants to wait for the science behind the vaccines to become more established. She said she might get a vaccine in five or 10 years.

“I'd prefer long term rather than straight out of the lab,” she said.

Rachel said she hopes everybody does this kind of research on every drug they take and every vaccine they get.

“Some things you don't really get a choice because they are what they are, but I mean, a disease that just came out, that we just had a vaccine for, that we just don't know a lot about — at the beginning of COVID, we thought if you touched people, you got COVID, and now it's if you just happen to be around them or if they sneeze in your mouth,” she said. “It's just not there yet.”

Her dad did not share her view.

“This isn't something they came up with in the matter of a month or two,” Dan Duggan said. “I know that COVID is related to SARS, and SARS has been around a long time, and it's a vaccine they've been working on for a long time."

But he also said he isn’t worried about his daughter.

“I have faith in her judgment to conduct her life as she sees fit,” he said. “And if she wants to, you know, take time to study the vaccine further and, you know, develop her own opinion, that is fine by me.”

A woman, who did not want to give her name, approached the vaccine table with her friend wanting to know about the records that would be generated if she were to get a vaccine. She asked if the Transportation Security Administration could access the records. Could the record come up if she applied for life insurance?

The answer to both questions was no.

“There was some confidentiality questions that she had,” said Rashida Blake, the nurse who spoke with her. “She believed that we may be tracking her by her Social Security number, and so I just informed her that we will not be tracking her.”

Sadie Powell and Miranda Rounds were browsing some of the other offerings in the barn but did not appear to notice the vaccine table a few yards away.

Powell said she had to get vaccinated before returning to Frostburg State University for the fall semester, but she had been putting it off.

“I just feel comfortable waiting,” Powell said. “I'm a young 20-year-old woman who has no health problems. My family's healthy. Both my parents are vaccinated, and they're not worried about it, so I'm not worried about it.”

Rounds said she wasn’t vaccinated either. She just graduated from West Virginia University, and if she hadn’t graduated, she would have had to get the shot before returning to school this fall.

“I'm not ready to [get the shot],” she said. “I haven't done my own research yet enough to make myself comfortable.”

Asked whether she typically does that kind of research before getting vaccines, Rounds said she does not generally get vaccines. She has never had the flu shot, and she never finished the series of vaccines meant to prevent HPV.

The clinic’s first shot of the day, a couple hours into the workers’ shift, went to Erin Moyer.

“They looked like they needed a person. They looked really bored,” Moyer joked.

She said she had been considering getting the vaccine for a while, but it was never a top priority. She never got around to making an appointment.

Other than her mom — who looked on as Moyer got her Johnson & Johnson vaccine — Moyer said she does not have many family members or friends who are vaccinated. COVID-19 has never really been a huge concern, she said.

“I don't go to the doctor. I don't have a regular doctor,” she said. “So, you know, nobody really suggests or tells you to go and have it done.”

Over the course of a collective 30 hours at the fair, spread over six days, the clinic vaccinated 23 people, according to county health department spokeswoman Diane Lee.

The county fair took place the first week of August, when the county’s positivity rate ranged from 1% to 5%, depending on the day. In the weeks since, the county has seen a surge of the virus. The positivity rate is now among the highest in the state, nearing 11%, state data show.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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