Chasing the holdouts: Georgia surpasses 50% vaccinated

Porscha Schley, of Decatur, spent months wary of getting vaccinated before she consented to getting vaccinated after a trusted mentor answered her questions and her workplace instituted a mandate. She now advocates for others to get vaccinated, saying they can protect themselves and their families. Now vaccinated, on a recent evening she gathered with family for dinner at a relative's home in McDonough.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Porscha Schley, of Decatur, spent months wary of getting vaccinated before she consented to getting vaccinated after a trusted mentor answered her questions and her workplace instituted a mandate. She now advocates for others to get vaccinated, saying they can protect themselves and their families. Now vaccinated, on a recent evening she gathered with family for dinner at a relative's home in McDonough. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

When Georgia reported last month that half of the state’s residents were fully vaccinated, a lot of people figured the state had maxed out and that those still unvaccinated were a hard-core lost cause.

But not everyone agrees.

Dr. Theresa Jacobs in Conyers says she regularly convinces new patients to get vaccinated and that she’s tired of hearing such assumptions. Brian Castrucci, whose foundation polls and tracks pandemic attitudes, said it’s a false narrative. Porscha Schley of Decatur, a health care employee whose entire family just got vaccinated, shakes her head.

There are tools health workers and others can use to bring people around to get vaccinated, they say, and they are using them. It boils down to approaching people proactively, on an individual basis, and addressing their hesitation with respect.

Nearly one year after vaccines were introduced to the U.S. in a flood of publicity, just 51% of the state’s residents are fully vaccinated. Georgia reached the 50% mark on Halloween.

Georgia has lagged other states on the percentage of residents vaccinated and remains near the bottom, according to federal data. As of recent counts Georgia ranked 41st among states, below South Carolina and Kentucky, and miles behind the top performers in New England. The top-ranked state, Vermont, could soon have 75% of its residents fully vaccinated.

But however low the number of new vaccine recipients has ebbed, vaccines have never stopped. Some health care workers on the front lines say that’s partly because they’ve never given up on the hesitant and that more should use their approach.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

In spite of 10 months of a multibillion-dollar vaccine campaign, some people have never had a conversation with a health care professional about it. Other experts say fear of needles is more widespread than is commonly known, and addressing it could make a difference. Some front-line health workers, not all, say vaccination mandates are the way to push these conversations with patients to the fore. People continuing to have success convincing people to get vaccinated say that a critical rule is to approach the unvaccinated person without anger or blame.

Dr. Jacobs, who runs a clinic in Conyers, says the vast majority of her patients are vaccinated now, and she continues to work to change minds. It starts with asking every patient about their vaccination status, and then not lecturing them, but asking them why and engaging with respect.

“It’s a slow process,” Jacobs said. “One person at a time.”

On the phone for the shot

Porscha Schley of Decatur was one of those people. Her whole household — Porscha, her mom and her brother — remained unvaccinated even as the delta wave took off over the summer.

But as of this fall, they are all vaccinated. What worked for Porscha was personal conversations with Jacobs, a mentor who is also a doctor, combined with a vaccination mandate. When the Marietta hospital where she works announced it would require all its workers to get vaccinated, some of her colleagues decided to stay unvaccinated and get suspended. But Schley got the shots.

Porscha Schley, who is recently vaccinated, is now wholeheartedly in favor of vaccination, but still doesn’t like the mandate. “I think if they could just really sit down and have like a little seminar, or some classes to kind of tell what it is that they’re actually getting, what side effects they’re getting, it’ll work out better,” she says. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Porscha Schley, who is recently vaccinated, is now wholeheartedly in favor of vaccination, but still doesn’t like the mandate. “I think if they could just really sit down and have like a little seminar, or some classes to kind of tell what it is that they’re actually getting, what side effects they’re getting, it’ll work out better,” she says. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The frustrating thing, Schley says, is that the hospital never tried talking to her and her colleagues before they issued the mandate. Once the mandate came down, she had a personal conversation with Jacobs, asking questions and getting assurance. Then Jacobs got on the phone with her for support while she got the shot.

Schley is now wholeheartedly in favor of vaccination, but still doesn’t like the mandate.

ExploreYes, we can reach the unvaccinated

“I think if they could just really sit down and have like a little seminar, or some classes to kind of tell what it is that they’re actually getting, what side effects they’re getting, it’ll work out better,” Schley said.

For Schley’s mother and brother, what worked was watching her go through the process and emerge unscathed. “They watched me very closely to see if I had any issues,” Schley said.

Engage with needle fear

Brian Castrucci, president of the de Beaumont Foundation, believes there isn’t time now to wait for all those conversations to happen, so he favors mandates. But the reason for mandates, he said, is that many of the hesitant are actually still open to getting vaccinated, but there isn’t time to work to convince them with the limited public health staff at hand.

“I think we have we have to be clear, the really hardcore ‘I’m never going to get vaccinated,’ it’s a small group,” Castrucci said. “Yet the national narrative has been, people are resisting.”

The other half — who’s still unvaccinated

Just over half of Georgians are fully vaccinated, according to state data. Here’s who’s left:

  • Portion of Georgians not yet fully vaccinated: 49.2%
  • Portion of Georgians not yet fully vaccinated but with one shot: 7%
  • Portion of Georgians younger than 5, not yet eligible for vaccination: 6.4%
  • Portion of Georgians who are eligible who have no shots: 35.9%

Source: Georgia Department of Public Health

Another group working on vaccine hesitancy suggests that a significant portion of the unvaccinated have a little-discussed reason: They fear needles. And, the group says, there are tools to deal with that.

“Fear of needles prevents millions of adults and kids from getting vaccines,” said Dr. Jody Thomas, CEO of the Meg Foundation. Yet it is so little discussed that they often think they’re the only one. Tools to combat that include easily available ones: numbing cream for the needle site, and at the time of vaccination, distraction combined with a vibrating tool to divert the nerves from registering the needle insertion.

Combating needle fear “could reduce COVID vaccine hesitancy in adults by as much as 10%,” Thomas said.

Castrucci acknowledges that each of these tools boils down to a lot of personal interaction and effort, while health care resources are sparse in parts of Georgia. Several Georgia counties don’t have a doctor. But the opportunity is worth ramping up the effort and cost, he said.

“We will reach the point of the immovable ‘no’s,’” he said. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

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