“So, have you ever received the vaccine?”
The question, a friendly greeting to Betty Smith, the pastor’s wife, hung as the four women sat down for their usual Tuesday coffee chat at Ingle Market.
Betty hesitated, feeling a cold judgmental tone from a friend who is against the vaccine and who was wearing a mask. She disguised it and did not respond.
Remembering that moment later, she sighed, “We were there to get to know each other better, but the first thing they put on the table was the vaccine against Covid.” The affair makes her husband, Reverend David Smith, even more uncomfortable.
“Frankly, I wish people weren’t asking,” he said, in a conversation after Wednesday night’s prayer at the Baptist Church in Tusculum. “I don’t think that’s anyone’s business. And it divides people.”
As the beautiful spring rolls in the Appalachians in northeastern Tennessee (southeastern United States), the Covid-19 vaccine hunts friends, families, congregations and colleagues. “It’s a big mess,” said Meredith Shrader, a medical assistant, who runs an event space with her husband, another pastor, and said the option has become so much more than healthcare. “What voice do you hear?”
Communities like Greeneville and the surrounding area – a rural, largely Republican, deeply Christian, and 95% white area – are on the radar of President Joe Biden and U.S. health officials, when efforts to immunize most of the U.S. population are entering a critical phase. These are places with the greatest resistance to the vaccine, according to research.
Campaigns designed to convince urban black and Hispanic communities to abandon mistrust of the vaccine have made notable progress, but inland cities like these must also be convinced if the country is to gain blanket immunity.
A week spent here in Greene County reveals nuanced hesitation, in more layers than research suggests. People say politics is not the main influence on their stance on the vaccine. The most common reason for his apprehension is the fear that the immunizer was developed in a hurry, that its long-term effects are still unknown.
Their decisions are also mixed in a web of opinions about bodily autonomy, science and authority, along with a strong regional, sometimes romanticized self-image: We don’t like strangers entering our lives.
According to statistics from the state’s health department, 31% of the vaccine-eligible population in Greene County has received at least one dose of the vaccine, below Tennessee as a whole, which has one of the Lowest rates in the country and well below the 55% national rate from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many elderly residents have been vaccinated, but now that all adults can be vaccinated, the application sites are almost deserted.
But the conversations here show that for many people, the resistance is not firm. Corroded by rumors on the Internet, many want clear information from people they trust. Others have practical needs, such as paid time off to recover from side effects, which the Biden government has asked employers to offer, or the ability to receive the vaccine from their own doctor.
What is also needed is a public movement capable of encouraging the doubtful to take the plunge: many vaccinated people do not tell anyone.
Greene County is lined with hundreds of evangelical churches, ranging from buildings and 19th century spiers to stables on back roads. People survive on family farming, jobs in small factories, government checks and cash flows from retirees who settle in the area at low cost and in beautiful scenery.
The heroin and methamphetamine arrests support a very active group of lawyers and bail services.
Covid hit the region hard this winter. Eleven people in Jim and Rita Fletcher’s great circle have died from the disease. But the Fletchers, who have lived in Greeneville their entire lives, don’t want to get the shot.
What is it for ?, they ask. The government still wants you to wear masks indoors. “I don’t see any benefit,” said Rita Fletcher, as the couple waited to be seen by the family doctor.
Neither science nor statistics on the new vaccine can shake them. Now retired and in his 70s, Jim Fletcher was a telecommunications engineer; Rita, secretary and accountant.
But the couple, who are from the Free Will Baptist congregation, fear the vaccine will contain parts of aborted fetuses (this is not true). They don’t trust the government, convinced it is manipulating Covid case numbers.
“I just think we were cheated,” Jim said.
People don’t have much faith in politicians’ statements, but they do trust Walt Cross, owner of the Mustard Seed store in Newport, just across the county border, which is named after the gospel. from Matthew and sells herbs, supplements and vegetables.
Cross, who is also the Volunteer Fire Chief in Cocke County, is a tall, slender man with firm blue eyes and a warm mountain accent, while describing his favorite method of reviving people who overdosed on drug (ammonia, rather than Narcan) or answering questions from Covid patients on how to treat their symptoms (hydrate, eat, take herbal extracts, apply hot and cold compresses).
Before looking for a doctor, many people call Cross. Or after the doctor’s meds don’t seem to work.
He scoffs at the idea that locals here refuse the vaccine just because they’re Republicans, like him too.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he says. “It was Trump who introduced the vaccine.” If it had to do with political affiliation, ”he continued,“ you would take it without delay! But he thinks people think the vaccine is too closely tied to politics.
In the Appalachian region, Cross explained, the fervor with which people avoid the vaccine is linked to history and tradition. For centuries Scottish and Irish settlers plunged into the mountains to escape military recruitment and tax collectors.
Jeremy Faison, a former Republican state congressman who grew up in the area, agrees: “Throughout the pandemic a lot of people have thought, ‘This is a serious situation, but my family and I know how to take care of us “.”
Faison, who is a libertarian and evangelical Christian, added: “This is why we are against the government that gives us orders, puts pressure on us to do something.”
This vision is reinforced by a religious, almost joyful fatalism. People say that if they haven’t caught Covid yet, with one year of the pandemic, they’ll take the risk. Sure, they can take Covid and die. But in any case, they will gain: a longer life on Earth or, for the faithful, an eternal life in Heaven.
“There is a set time for everyone to die,” said Reuben Smucker, a Mennonite pastor from Greeneville who works to install garage gates. “We have to take care of our bodies physically, emotionally and spiritually, but if it’s my turn to go and it’s Covid, well, it’s my turn to go.
After Cross, dean of a Seventh-day Adventist church, counsels Covid patients, he prays with them. “It’s the most important thing,” he said. “Because it’s God who does the healing.”
The vaccine issue has silenced even Greene County’s most influential leaders: evangelical pastors. Many have been vaccinated, such as David Smith of Batista de Tusculum, but do not use the pulpit to defend vaccination. He doesn’t want to risk taking someone along, he explained, at a time when he expects people to return to church to worship. After a year of church services through the app, which people call “the church in pajamas,” he fears personal attendance may decline.
Daniel Shrader, leader of a small Baptist congregation, strongly supports the vaccine. He wants the church to be safe for the elderly and weak-hearted women he preached during the pandemic screaming from the steps of their balconies.
In conversation, he gives his opinion on the vaccine; in big meetings, keep to prayers.
The day the Fletchers, the retired couple, told their family doctor, Dr Daniel Lewis, about the vaccine was the first anniversary of the day he was put on artificial respiration with a severe case of Covid.
Lewis, 43, was hospitalized for more than a month. His condition was so severe that he recorded farewell messages to his five children.
During his 13 years at Greeneville, Lewis, a volunteer physician on the college’s athletic teams and chief medical officer of four regional hospitals at Ballad Health, has garnered broad support from the community. During their illness, people left meals and restaurant gift cards on their doorstep and maintained a chain of prayers. They mowed the lawn in their garden, maintained the flower beds, repaired their truck.
On leaving the hospital, 15 kilos thinner, weaker and more hesitant, he and his wife, Baptist devotees, had difficulty understanding the purpose of God behind this suffering.
Patients told him, “I didn’t take Covid seriously until you got sick.”
So Lewis started using that hard-earned credibility to talk about the vaccine, visit nursing homes, go to churches, make videos. He refined his speech to deal with all the backward, deceptively scientific, conspiratorial and spiritual ideas.
Will Lewis be able to convince the Fletchers to get the shot?
He patiently answered the couple’s questions, pointing out what scientists already know and what they don’t know yet.
“How can we be sure that there are no chips in the vaccine, like the one they put in dogs?” Asked Jim Fletcher.
“We couldn’t make such small microchips,” Lewis said.
“Well, it looks like a grain of rice,” Fletcher replied.
“I couldn’t inject a grain of rice with a syringe,” Lewis said.
The doctor lifted his smartphone. If you’re worried about being tracked, he says, all the tech is here, on the device you pick up every day, every hour.
The Fletchers looked embarrassed.
“The decision is yours,” Lewis said politely. “I just want you to make an informed decision, and I want to do my best to help you.”
Jim Fletcher replied, “Well, we have to spend some time talking.”
Lewis was later optimistic: “I think I can convince them.”
But to this day, the Fletchers say they won’t get the vaccine.