Public health worker encourages rural Americans to get vaccinated

Rural Health
Small Towns

In the fight against COVID-19, there have been countless members of society who have stood up and, in many cases, sacrificed their own health to protect the health of others, or to care for those who might not be able to care for themselves.

Among those often unsung heroes are our frontline workers, essential workers, medical personnel, health care workers, and public health workers. Most of these individuals have been vaccinated or are in the process of receiving vaccinations in an effort to protect them more completely while they put their lives on the line each day.

Molly Herman, a rural public health worker at a health department in Nebraska, stepped into her role in this field not long after the coronavirus spread throughout the nation. She recently received both doses of the vaccine, and says she had plenty of reasons to do so.

“Since I’m part of the team working at public vaccination clinics, I need to be vaccinated so that I am protected and can continue to do the ‘public’ work of public health,” Molly said. “If I chose not to get the vaccine, not only could I get sick, but I would also not be able to work and support my team.”

Personally, she was more than happy to be vaccinated in hopes of returning to some kind of normalcy in her everyday life.

“Being vaccinated is the first step in getting to hug my parents again, going out to eat, and having family meals and gatherings, none of which I have done in the past 12 months,” Molly said.

Answering questions about the vaccine

Though many people are fully on board with getting vaccinated when their turn rolls around, many others are hesitant. Molly assures those in doubt that these thoughts are understandable, and offers advice to help ease any worries they might have.

“The first thing I tell people is that it’s totally normal to have concerns and questions about something new—that’s part of the human condition,” she said. “Make sure you seek out a reliable source like your main health care provider or your local public health department to get the answers you need.”

She also recommends looking beyond local resources to statewide and national outlets, such as the University of Nebraska Medical Center/Nebraska Medicine and Dr. Anthony Fauci, among others, as they have been providing trustworthy information since day one.

In addition, there have been concerns about the speed in which the vaccines have been developed, something those working in public health have researched in depth.

“What I would like people to know concerning the mRNA vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer), is that while authorization of mRNA vaccines is new, the technology, that is to say the development of mRNA vaccines, has actually been around for more than a decade,” Molly said.

She adds that even though most of the world doesn’t think about creating vaccines for future, unknown viruses, scientists around the world who study infectious diseases spend their lives and careers doing just that, and have been working with a sense of urgency to develop more effective vaccines for quite some time.

Knowing when and where the vaccine is available to you

While not everyone has access to the vaccine yet, working at a public health department means Molly and her coworkers have been following vaccine distribution closely, so they knew as soon as the first shipment of vaccines arrived, and immediately started administering it to those in the first phase of distribution.

If someone is unsure of what phase they belong in, Molly suggests inquiring within their local public health department, whether through a phone call, or through social media.

“Vaccine registration and distribution varies from health district to health district, and your local public health department will have the most up-to-date information for where you live,” Molly said.

There is no cost for the vaccine, so those concerned with that aspect need not worry. Vaccine providers (wherever someone receives their shot) are allowed to charge an injection fee, so if someone has health insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid, providers might ask for an insurance card and bill that company. However, federal law prohibits vaccine providers from denying someone the vaccine if they cannot pay the injection or any other administrative fees.

All Americans are encouraged to get vaccinated—rural Americans especially, as they could potentially face dire complications if they contract COVID-19.

“Rural Americans experience greater health disparities than urban Americans when it comes to serious underlying health conditions, including several of the ones which put people at greater risk for severe COVID-19, like obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure,” she said. “The vaccine trials showed that the available vaccines prevent severe COVID-19 and death in the majority of people who get them.”

Rural health care systems are also shrinking, which means there is less available care for those who need to be hospitalized because of COVID-19.

“People who get sick enough from COVID-19 to require hospitalization often need highly specialized care, which, depending on local hospital capability, could require travel,” she said. “It’s such a gamble right now, whether or not a hospital bed will be available for you when and if you need it.”

In many places around Nebraska, hospitalizations are currently lower than they were in late fall, but Molly suggests if someone can do something to greatly lessen their chance of ending up hospitalized, and all the medical debt that it could lead to, then it makes sense to take that opportunity.

“The vaccine is free, but treatment for COVID-19 is not,” Molly said.

Accessing information in multiple languages

Part of working in public health means Molly advocates for all residents in the district she serves, including those who may encounter a language barrier when it comes to researching and understanding this crucial information.

As more and more of rural America becomes home to new immigrants, public health departments are doing all they can to ensure those communities are just as well-served as any English-speaking communities.

“We want to do everything in our power to make sure we provide equitable vaccine distribution,” Molly said. “This is where working with our local medical and social service partners is crucial, as they have knowledge and resources that will assist in reaching this community and providing the logistics to get them informed and vaccinated.”

Many health departments translate their vaccine messaging and post it on social media. They also have bilingual staff who are on-site for vaccine clinics where it is known there will be Spanish-speaking individuals. Access is available to a call-in language line for some of the indigenous languages from Central America, and the vaccine sign-up website is now available in Spanish as well as English.

Getting the vaccine

When people do get the chance to take the vaccine, Molly says the experience, while it differs from person to person, is nothing to fear.

“I had no side effects with the first dose, other than a sore arm for a few days—just like after getting a flu or a tetanus shot,” she said. “The morning after my second dose, I had some uncomfortable side effects for about 24 hours, but I knew from following the science that everything I was experiencing was normal and actually proof that my immune system was responding as it should.”

Molly wants to remind everyone this is a constantly evolving situation we’re all a part of, and that things continue changing because we are being presented with new information all the time.

“I know it might seem like what was said yesterday is different to what is being said today,” she said. “Part of that is because science is a process of building and organizing knowledge—we are learning things every day about this virus and how vaccines work to fight it. The other part is that the United States has never before undertaken a mass vaccination campaign for adults, so there is no blueprint for this. There will be some kinks to work out. In the meantime, we are all trying to give everyone a little extra grace while we do our best to get shots in arms.”

Understanding more about the vaccine

Vaccination tips from a public health worker:

  • You are considered fully vaccinated about two weeks after you receive your second dose of vaccine. Your body takes a little time after the second shot to develop peak immunity.
  • After you have been fully vaccinated, continue to wear your masks when around people you don’t live with and practice physical distancing.
    “This might seem strange, but while the clinical trials for Pfizer and Moderna proved that both vaccines are effective in preventing severe disease and mortality, medical experts are still studying how effective the vaccines are at preventing transmission,” Molly said. “What this means is that if someone is fully vaccinated and then exposed to the virus, that person is not likely to get sick, but the virus could still be in them and they could still spread it. The vaccines could very well prevent transmission, but until we have this evidence, we still need to do our best to protect others by using methods we already know work.”
  • Don’t wait for what you might have heard is the “best” vaccine. Vaccine doctors say the same thing: take whatever U.S. Food and Drug Administration-authorized vaccine is available to you, when it is available to you. This is the best strategy to get protection for yourself as soon as possible and will help slow the pandemic.