As area counties continue to trail behind the state in COVID-19 vaccination rates, Gregg County’s health authority says an unfounded mistrust of vaccines as well as the politicization of the pandemic have hampered the effort.
About 36 percent of Texans are fully vaccinated, according to the latest Texas Department of State Health Services data.
No area county is close to the state rate, with the highest being Smith at 28.7 percent of residents fully vaccinated and Gregg at 27.4 percent, according to the state data.
And the more rural the county, the fewer number of residents vaccinated. About 18 percent of residents in Panola County, which has the smallest population in the area, are fully vaccinated.
Harrison County shows 22.7 percent of its population fully vaccinated, with Rusk County at 22.5 percent and Upshur County at 20.3 percent, based on the latest data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Gregg County Health Authority Dr. Lewis Browne, who’s been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle since the first case in the county was announced in March 2020, says it “appears we’ve kind of stalled” in the number of residents getting shots.
“We were doing really well in getting vaccines through the (county vaccine hub), which was a tremendous boon for us to have,” he said. “But now there’s so many people thinking everything’s over with (the pandemic).”
The number of COVID-19 vaccines administered weekly has slowly declined in Gregg County, reflecting a statewide trend.
After hitting a high of 7,149 shots given in Gregg County the week of March 1-7, that number has plunged to 1,397 from May 24-30, the most recent data available.
Browne said he believes a “significant” number of people don’t trust the vaccine, partly because of reported blood clots linked to the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was temporarily paused in the United States.
About 15 cases of blood clots among women ages 18 to 48 involving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been reported, according to reports.
The problems with the one-shot vaccine were “detrimental and scared people from the other vaccines,” Browne said.
“The reality is the vaccine is much safer” than what some people believe, he said, especially the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer versions.
Browne said challenges getting vaccines to the rural parts of Gregg County and the region are nothing new.
“The rural parts of the state and rural parts of East Texas have traditionally been very difficult to get vaccinated,” he said. “The more metropolitan areas have been more willing to do vaccinations. I think the people in the rural areas don’t feel like it is a significant risk for them because they don’t live around as many people and therefore they won’t catch it compared to people in ... bigger cities.”
Christus Good Shepherd, Gregg County and the City of Longview continue to operate the vaccine hub at the Longview Exhibit Building, but declining interest has resulted in scaled-back hours of operation.
“If you have people that are not going, then you just can’t afford to keep all those (workers) there,” Browne said about the hub.
The end of the state’s mask mandate pushed a perception that danger had passed, he said.
“When they started reducing the mask mandate, that’s when everybody thought, ‘We’ve over this,’ ” Browne said. “I think it sent a message to people that we’re over it.”
The doctor also voiced frustration that what should be a “scientific and medical” issue became political, saying people’s decisions to wear a mask or get a vaccine are, in some cases, being influenced by who they voted for in November.
And despite a recent community outreach initiative by the Texas Department of State Health Services touting the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, Browne said he isn’t happy with marketing efforts.
“I watch those ads, especially on the national networks on TV, and I think the marketing they do does not encourage enough people to (get vaccinated),” he said. “It almost makes me not want to be vaccinated.”
Browne chuckled when asked if he believes anything else can be done on a local level to promote vaccinations.
“I’ve certainly said it as many times as people will listen to get vaccinated,” he said.