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Encouragement, Statistics Pushing Initially Hesitant North Carolinians To Get COVID-19 Vaccine

 UNC Physicians Network regional administrator Heather Rouse says providers are working hard to offer North Carolinians good information about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.
UNC Physicians Network regional administrator Heather Rouse says providers are working hard to offer North Carolinians good information about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

At a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Kinston, Pat Barnes sits in a chair and rolls up his sleeve. At the opposite end of the small room, UNC Physicians Network nurse Kimberly Johnson preps a needle. She asks him: "Which arm would you like to have it in?"

Most people at the clinic on this day are getting their second shot of Moderna, though the clinic is open to walk-ins. While the initial wave of demand for the COVID-19 vaccine has largely ebbed, health providers have now turned efforts to providing education to the many thousands of North Carolinians initially hesitant to get the vaccine.

Johnson runs through the various questions, to make sure Barnes is ready to receive his shot. Barnes says he was initially a bit hesitant to get the vaccine, but is now happy to be getting his second dose. He doesn’t wince when he gets pricked, though he feigns pain several seconds later, as a joke.

The COVID vaccine has been available for more than six months now. By and large, those who definitely want a shot have, by now, gotten one. Those who definitely do not, have stayed away. It's that middle group who were hesitant at first that are now coming off the sidelines ― thanks in part to renewed efforts by health providers to target initially-undecided North Carolinians. People like Kinston resident Toni Mandich.

“I didn't know if I wanted to be a guinea pig,” Mandich said. “You know, and I think that was a lot of people's concerns when it first came out."

But she and her husband David kept a close eye on the news, and took note of how effectively the vaccine protects people.

“And then the more you watch the numbers go down, and the more you see people unvaccinated getting sick,” Mandich said. “It was like, ‘No, this is the right thing to do.’ And everybody needs to do it. You need to just take a step in faith and say, 'Yup, it's time.'"

Daily case and hospitalization numbers have dropped sharply since highs set early in 2021. But they aren't at zero. The state is still running an average of about 700 daily hospitalizations due to COVID-19. That's something the Toni and David Mandich said they definitely want to avoid.

“I think the good outweighs the bad,” she said. “I'd rather be vaccinated and know that I've done everything I can. Because I don't want to end up in the hospital."

Now that they've been vaccinated, they have almost become advocates.

“Everybody should do it,” Toni Mandich said. “It makes sense."

Across the state, thousands of people have similar attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccine. Polling from Elon University shows that about one-in-five adults say they will not get the vaccine. That's a number that hasn’t really budged in the past half year.

But the number that has changed significantly is those who said they were hesitant at first, but now want to get the shot.

Heather Rouse, a UNC Physicians Network regional administrator, said that matches what she's seeing on the ground.

“I think a lot of patients were able to kind of talk to friends, family, see that they did well, and then they were a little more open to receiving the vaccine themselves,” Rouse said. “So, we've definitely seen an increase in patients who were initially hesitant, but have become very comfortable."

Rouse said it's the personal connections that prove the most effective at soothing any fears or worries. She says health providers have been eager to share their personal stories.

“A large portion that have been in are very open about speaking with patients about it. Initially, that was one thing I was happy to do was talk to the patient, you know, my personal experience, my mother's personal experience, my grandmother's personal experience, my father's personal experience,” Rouse said. “So, I think hearing their stories over and over and reassurance that a lot are doing just fine with that has been very helpful."

There have been more than 8 million doses of the vaccine distributed in North Carolina. But only about half of the state's adult population has been vaccinated. The Department of Health and Human Services has launched a pilot program offering $25 cash cards to those who take the vaccine at select sites. And health providers like Rouse say they will continue to provide education to encourage that number to continue to climb.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC data reporter, a position he took in September, 2016.