Editor’s note: This story has been updated to contain additional information about who is eligible for vaccination against COVID-19. For more information about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Nurse practitioner Janey Hammons’ office on Main Street in the town of Seiling is one of the few places where residents can get the COVID-19 vaccine in Dewey County. The farming community of about 800 people hugs U.S. Route 270 between Watonga and Woodward in western Oklahoma.
Hammons’ practice has been able to vaccinate between 60 and 70 people in the community, but worries about what Dewey County’s low rates of vaccine uptake will mean for new cases of COVID-19 this winter as the delta variant of the virus spreads across the state.
Dewey County has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate among Oklahoma’s 77 counties. Just 29.3 percent of the population over age 12 had at least one dose of vaccine as of Aug. 28, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Hammons has sometimes worked shifts at Seiling’s 18-bed hospital — which has the county’s only emergency room. Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has gotten harder to find open beds at larger hospitals to transfer patients from Seiling and other rural hospitals, she said. Four of the state’s largest medical systems announced they had no free ICU beds on Friday as COVID cases continue to rise.
“I think that’s probably why I’ve been so worried about vaccination, because I’ve watched some people suffer and die and we’re not able to find beds for them,” Hammons said.
Misinformation is a big part of the problem. Some of Hammons’ patients have expressed concerns that COVID-19 vaccines will leave them unable to have children, alter their DNA, implant them with tracking devices or make their bodies attract magnets. Vaccines have become politicized, Hammons said.
“I think in our community, that’s a lot of why maybe people are against vaccines, because it’s a political thing, not a medical thing. And for the most part, they haven’t seen the horrific things that are happening,” she said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says vaccines are safe and effective, but many people in Dewey County have opted not to get the shots after consuming information from unreliable sources on Facebook, staff in Hammons’ office said.
About 53 percent of people statewide have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Oklahoma has seen a recent uptick in vaccinations but the state still lags behind the national vaccination rate of about 61 percent, according to state and federal data.
While vaccination rates in the state’s urban centers are as high as 73.3 percent in Oklahoma County and 69.3 percent in Tulsa County, public health officials are combating widespread misinformation and distrust in many parts of the state, said Keith Reed, deputy commissioner at the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
In June, the state health department launched a text messaging campaign targeted at communities with low vaccination rates, allowing people to request more information about vaccines using their cell phones, but the messages weren’t always well received in rural areas where mistrust of government officials runs high, Reed said.
“We recognize that it didn’t always resonate real well with local communities, especially when it comes from the government itself, which sometimes is the source of the distrust,” Reed said.
The Health Department is now trying to work with people Reed calls “local influencers” to help persuade more people to get vaccinated in rural parts of the state, including health care providers and schools. The challenge is greater in places like Dewey County, which lacks a dedicated county health department. In order to help deliver more doses of vaccine in rural areas, the state health department has used federal pandemic relief money to purchase a fleet of mobile clinics — vans and trailers hooked to extended-cab pickup trucks.
State health officials have partnered with school districts in Dewey County to host three vaccination pods, but some districts have turned down opportunities to host the events, Reed said.
Officials for Dewey County schools in the towns of Seiling and Leedey told The Frontier they didn’t host vaccination pods because other locations were available for the events or because area health care providers already offer the shots.
Turnout was low at the schools that did decide to host vaccination pods. While the state health department has been prepared to administer anywhere between 30 and 125 doses of vaccine at recent pods in neighboring counties, just two people showed up at two of the Dewey County schools that hosted events, Reed said.
“It’s a ground game now, so we’re pleased to have even two people show up and get vaccinated,” Reed said.
U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Oklahoma, is troubled by low vaccination rates in his district, which spans much of northern and western Oklahoma across 32 counties including Dewey.
In July, Lucas, the ranking Republican on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, penned a column promoting COVID-19 vaccines as safe and effective that ran in newspapers across the state, including the Dewey County Record based in Seiling. But it’s hard to fight deep-rooted distrust of the government as well as the onslaught of misinformation from social media, Lucas said.
“If you really believe that a vaccine is going to melt your DNA, you’ve got some deeper issues than what your congressman is recommending,” he said.
“It’s a very cynical society we live in right now,” Lucas said. “No one trusts the government at any level, and no one trusts anything at any level.”
The congressman’s endorsement of vaccines drew 86 comments on Facebook, many of them angry or accusatory, but the Dewey County Record received no responses from the community after running Lucas’ column.
The paper has a press run of about 600 copies and the most recent edition included coverage of the Seiling Town Council meeting, cattle and wheat prices, photos of area high school bands and football teams and a front-page color photograph of the “Yard of the Week” sponsored by the local chamber of commerce.
Publisher Paul Laubach wishes more people in Dewey County would write letters to the editor, but most people just post their opinions on Facebook these days. He also believes misinformation spread on social media is a big reason for the county’s low vaccination rates.
“Nowadays, nobody really responds to the newspaper that much. They read it, and they talked about it at the coffee shop, but most of your response is going to be on Facebook,” Laubach said. “The sheep go to Facebook so they can be like sheep and jump off the cliff together.”
The Frontier asked Facebook about what the company is doing to combat misinformation about vaccines on its platform. In response, Facebook said it has launched several initiatives to help promote vaccination, including creating a tool to help users find information about where they can get vaccinated in their communities. The company has also removed more than 20 million pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram and more than 3,000 accounts, pages and groups for violating its rules about spreading COVID-19-related misinformation. The company also displays warning messages on questionable content about vaccination and COVID-19.
“The data shows that for people in the US on Facebook, vaccine hesitancy has declined by 50% since January, and acceptance is high, and we are continuing to invest resources in promoting reliable information about COVID-19 vaccines,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.
In the Dewey County seat of Taloga, which has a population of about 300, farmers gather at the Short Stop convenience store on the town’s main drag to get news about the community. The store has a long row of tables and chairs in one corner for locals to meet and swap stories.
Taloga Mayor Larry Gore said that the area’s Republican leanings, and a general belief in personal freedom have kept many people from getting the COVID-19 shots. About 90 percent of Dewey County voters supported Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
Gore opted to get vaccinated, but said he understands why some of his neighbors might not want the shots. There’s also a lack of reliable information about vaccines in the community, he said.
“We don’t get a lot of information out here sometimes,” Gore said. “If you don’t get the newspaper and if you don’t watch the evening news, the world kind of passes you by.”
The 8-man Seiling Wildcats football games are a big community event on Friday nights in the late summer and fall. But last week’s game was cancelled after staff and players came down with an illness — the stomach flu. COVID-19 hasn’t been a problem in the school so far this year, Superintendent Greg Gregory said.
Like many people in Dewey County, Gregory fills multiple roles in his community. He’s the superintendent of Seiling Public Schools, which had about 460 students last year, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. He also runs the concession stand at athletic events and drives a school bus on many days. There’s only so many people in the community to keep things running, so everyone has to pitch in.
Dewey County’s population peaked at around 14,000 residents in 1910 and has declined since the end of World War II, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. About 4,800 people remain in the county today, scattered across 1,008 square miles. Seiling is the largest town.
In March 2020, Seiling was forced to shut down classes for the remainder of the school year along with districts across the state because of the pandemic, a frustration for many in the community as there were few cases of COVID-19 across mostly rural western Oklahoma.
“That was very tough on this school because we didn’t even have a case in the county,” Gregory said.
Since then, Dewey County has recorded 610 cumulative cases of COVID-19 and 14 deaths, according to state health department data.
The school district is a big employer in Seiling and also a center of community life, but Gregory said there are no plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for students, teachers and staff. He doesn’t believe people should be forced to choose between keeping their jobs and getting vaccinated.
Gregory hasn’t gotten the vaccine himself — he believes he’s already come down with a mild case of COVID-19 that has given him some immunity from the virus. He also thinks the vaccines were developed quickly and worries about long-term health effects.
The CDC now recommends vaccination against COVID-19 for everyone age 12 and up and has recommended vaccination for everyone age 16 and older with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has been fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Shots are also available for children ages 12 to 15 under an emergency use authorization from the FDA.
It’s a matter of personal freedom, Gregory said. He doesn’t think lack of information is the problem — people in Dewey County have internet access just like everyone else, he said.
“We’re a conservative county, we’re not a liberal county. That’s a large portion of it — it’s the biggest thing,” Gregory said.