Warren County and southcentral Kentucky are significantly behind state and national COVID-19 vaccination rates, the Kentucky COVID-19 dashboard shows.
Overall, 47% of the state’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. That number is just below the nationwide average of 52.5%.
But as of Friday, there is not a single county in the region with at least 39% of its population vaccinated, and some counties are well below 30% as of last week.
Warren County’s average is one of the highest in southcentral Kentucky at 35.56%, but that number pales in comparison to the largest counties in the state.
Only Jefferson, Fayette, Kenton and Boone counties rank above Warren County in population, and all four are in the top 10 of counties in total population vaccinated with at least one dose.
Out of Kentucky’s 120 counties, Warren County’s 35.56% falls outside the top 50.
Med Center Health Vice President of Corporate Support Services Dr. Melinda Joyce has seen the region’s continued downward trend in vaccinations at The Medical Center’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic.
Joyce said local numbers were initially very high. However, vaccine hesitancy has become more frequent.
“People have told me, ‘I’m healthy, and if I get sick I probably wouldn’t get that sick. So why get the vaccine?’ This is not true at all,” Joyce said. “We have seen people of all ages die from COVID-19.”
Joyce said she has heard many people say they are waiting to see the vaccine’s long-term effects, and several women have said they are concerned what the vaccine will do to their fertility.
Joyce said both concerns have no scientific merit.
The top five Kentucky counties with the highest percentage of its population vaccinated with one dose are Woodford (62%), Franklin (61%), Fayette (59%), Boone (53%) and Campbell (53%).
Joyce speculated why those counties have notably higher vaccination rates.
“I do wonder if the proximity to the University of Kentucky has something to do with it,” Joyce said. “Early on, they were able to do very, very large vaccine sites like at Kroger Field. They have a lot of medical campuses in the area. I think it’s more of a scientific, medical-based community.”
Joyce then referenced a study conducted in April by Quinnipiac University that found 45% of Republicans did not plan to get vaccinated.
“I don’t want to come off as political, but this is a higher Republican community, and Fayette County, for example, is not,” Joyce said. “In my heart of hearts, I would love to believe this has nothing to do with politics, but I just don’t know. It makes you wonder.”
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell shared that concern during his March 30 visit to The Medical Center’s vaccine clinic.
“I read the other day that one of the segments of our population that was reluctant to get the vaccine was Republican men,” McConnell said during the stop. “I’m a Republican man, and I took my vaccine as soon as I was eligible. And I certainly encourage everybody to do it. It’s been extraordinarily successful.”
Another potential link between the vaccine and politics can be seen in Fayette, Jefferson, Franklin and Woodford counties.
Not only do they rank at the top of vaccine rates, but they were also the top Democratic-leaning counties in the state from Kentucky’s 2020 presidential election.
State Rep. Patti Minter, D-Bowling Green, offered another possible explanation.
“So many people who live in those counties are state employees,” Minter said. “People who work in the state Capitol complex – I haven’t met anybody who is not vaccinated.”
Minter said she has also seen places with higher vaccination numbers operating workplace clinics.
“COVID-19 made no distinctions on people’s political affiliations or status,” she said. “We have lost so many to this terrible pandemic. It would be a shame for us to lose any more ground now. We know that the vaccines work.”
State Rep. Steve Sheldon, R-Bowling Green, said he does not feel the issue has become politically polarized and that connections made between vaccine rates and politics are “a bit too analytical.”
“I think the vaccine hesitancy we are seeing has a lot to do with mortality rates being lower in groups who aren’t at risk,” Sheldon said. “We did a really good job getting the older population vaccinated, and people now are simply using their own heads and making their own decisions.”
Sheldon, a pharmacist, said he has received the vaccine, and he urged the public to look at the risks and benefits associated with COVID-19 and the shot.
Barren River District Health Department Director Matt Hunt said the low numbers in southcentral Kentucky are likely due to a number of unidentifiable factors. But he did offer possible theories behind Warren County’s rate.
“Urban areas were hit hard first, and the response was strong at first,” Hunt said. “People now are becoming a bit more complacent than in other areas. Warren County was in the red at first while other counties were in the orange. We were able to rapidly heal faster than other counties did.”
Despite the low numbers, Hunt and Joyce still see ways to reinforce the region’s confidence in the vaccine.
“Hopefully, vaccines will be available at primary care physician offices when people go in for a checkup,” Hunt said. “Before, you had to go to a special site (to get the vaccine). Hopefully, it will become much more like the flu shot.”
“I think one of the things that would be huge is if we continue to show our cases of COVID-19 are dropping,” Joyce said. “That information can maybe help those folks who wanted to wait and see. We have to keep getting the word out. You never know what message could convince people to get the vaccine.”
– For further information on the state’s COVID-19 vaccination numbers, visit the dashboard at https://dashboard.chfs.ky.gov.