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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: The road back to normalcy has a two-poke toll

So there’s no rollback to Phase 2, for now. That’s a relief.

But that doesn’t mean we’re moving forward.

Vaccinations are no longer difficult to get, but a lot of us in Eastern Washington aren’t getting them – or, I suppose, a more hopeful person might say a lot of us just haven’t gotten them yet.

Whichever it is, Spokane County is lagging King County significantly in the percentage of residents fully vaccinated. Overall, most of the counties with the lowest vaccination rates in the state are in rural Eastern Washington. Meanwhile, case rates are rising again.

The path we’re on points straight at an eventual rollback to Phase 2. We need to get on a different path – the two-poke turnpike to herd immunity.

Statewide, about 54% of residents older than age 16 have gotten at least one shot; in Stevens, Garfield, Pend Oreille, Whitman, Adams, Asotin and Columbia counties, that figure is lower by at least 10 percentage points.

If that doesn’t change, we’ll be talking about restaurant capacity percentages and when to wear masks for a lot longer than any of us want to.

Nationally, the vaccination rate has slowed down as those who are most vulnerable, and those most informed about the risks and benefits, have gotten their shots, and as young people and the so-called vaccine-hesitant stay on the sidelines.

If we want to do more than stand still on the pandemic, many more people will have to overcome their aversion to those two pokes. Given the fact that this aversion is, in many cases, rooted in conspiracy thinking and partisan misinformation, though, it’s hard to know how optimistic anyone can reasonably be about this.

The viral pandemic has thrived hand-in-hand with a pandemic of misinformation, conspiracy and dishonesty. Even as the vaccines tackle the former, the latter is still blazing through the country. From anti-maskers to anti-vaxxers, pandemic ignorance makes people sick and keeps us all trapped on the losing side of a winnable battle.

Epidemiologists have estimated that a vaccination rate of 70% to 80% would be required to reach herd immunity.

Thirty-three percent of Spokane County residents over age 16 have been fully vaccinated, and 44% have had at least one shot. That compares with 43% and 65% in King County, according to the state Department of Health, and 39% and 44% statewide.

Across rural Eastern Washington, as with rural counties all over the country, the story is worse. Stevens County has the lowest rate in the state, with just 26% having at least one shot. Several other rural counties on the dry side have similar rates – though Lincoln and Adams have first-shot numbers almost as high as the state average.

Rural hesitancy about the vaccine is not a new phenomenon; it’s true across the country, for many reasons – as it’s true that access and availability have varied by location, and may influence these stats. But the rural/urban split on the vaccine is as pronounced as the conservative/liberal one.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey earlier this year found that 41% of all Americans said they would definitely get the vaccine; for rural residents that figure was 31%. A larger-than-average proportion of rural residents also said they definitely would not get vaccinated – 20%.

“Rural residents are among the most vaccine hesitant groups, along with Republicans, individuals 30-49 years old, and Black adults,” the foundation said. “Individuals living in rural areas in the U.S. are significantly less likely to say they will get a COVID-19 vaccine that is deemed safe and available for free than individuals living in suburban and urban America.”

The partisan divide is also well-known by this point, fueled daily by conspiratorial claptrap in the alternative-universe of right-wing media. Polling over recent months has shown that positive attitudes toward the vaccines have grown among Black and Hispanic Americans, while remaining lowest among white Republican men – 56% of whom said in a Civiqs poll last month that they would not, or might not, get the vaccine.

I also think the urgency to get the vaccine is likely undercut by the fact that lots of rural people have not changed their daily lives as much as city folks have. If you’ve spent any time in small towns over the past year, you know this is true. The urgency to get vaccinated to return to normalcy is not as strong in places where lots of folks already returned to normalcy.

Whatever the reasons, we need more shots in the arms in Spokane County and the whole region, where our case numbers are rising and where a possible return to Phase 2 is definitely not out of the question. As with everything in this pandemic – from the way the virus spreads to the way we stop its spread – community is crucial.

What we do to make ourselves safer also makes our neighbor safer.

And vice-versa.

Editor’s note: This column was update May 5 to correct the percent of people statewide, older than age 16, who have received at least one dose of vaccine.