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Convincing Amish Communities To Get Vaccinated As Their COVID-19 Cases Surge

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Health officials in rural America are struggling to vaccinate one of the most isolated groups of all, the Amish. And they are worried that another COVID-19 surge could be on the way. From member station WCPN Ideastream in Cleveland, Anna Huntsman reports.

ANNA HUNTSMAN, BYLINE: It's a peaceful afternoon in rural Holmes County, Ohio, in the heart of one of the largest Amish settlements in the country. Here, about half of the county's population is Amish.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm going to walk with you over here, OK?

HUNTSMAN: But County Health Director Michael Derr says it's been difficult to encourage the Amish to get the vaccine. None showed up at a recent community clinic.

MICHAEL DERR: I haven't seen any. So it's that same trait of about less than a percent are coming in.

HUNTSMAN: Millersburg resident Marcus Yoder says the Amish who are getting the shots are doing so privately, going to doctors' offices and smaller clinics. And they're keeping it to themselves.

MARCUS YODER: There were Amish people getting the vaccination same day I was. And we all kind of looked at each other and smiled underneath our masks and assumed that we wouldn't say that we saw them.

HUNTSMAN: Yoder is formerly Amish, and many of his friends and family still are. He says the pandemic hit the Amish community hard last fall, and this county posted one of the highest mortality rates in the state. But he says many Amish residents don't want to get vaccinated because they mistakenly think the community has reached herd immunity.

YODER: I think one of the main driving forces is the misinformation about COVID itself - that it's not more serious than the flu. They're saying, well, it didn't affect me that much; look at all these old people who survived - also, the lack of awareness about the variants.

HUNTSMAN: Health officials in Indiana and Pennsylvania are also trying to combat misinformation and educate the Amish there about the safety of the vaccines. West Virginia University sociologist Rachel Stein says the low vaccine interest among the Amish is not surprising.

RACHEL STEIN: We as non-Amish are more on board with preventative medicine. Flu season's coming up - better get our flu shot so we don't get the flu. Right? And they certainly don't have that sort of mindset that we need to sort of do things to stop this from happening. And so people get the flu, and then they get better or not.

HUNTSMAN: Holmes Health Director Derr is concerned about another surge now that more contagious variants of the virus are spreading across the country. He worries those who previously contracted the virus may not be protected.

DERR: We had to open up extra wings in our hospital to kind of cover that. And as a region, we definitely surged over the winter. And we know that that happened about 90 days ago. We're primed and ready for another surge because we're not vaccinating enough.

HUNTSMAN: This county currently has Ohio's lowest vaccination rate with just 10% of the population fully vaccinated. But Yoder is optimistic that more Amish will eventually get vaccinated, especially if doctors and community leaders start talking more openly about it and share their positive experience getting the shots.

YODER: Historically, our community, we've been hesitant to embrace everything around us. But at some point, when we see the positiveness of it, the good it brings us, the strength it brings to our values, we're going to move that direction.

HUNTSMAN: Derr expects more Amish will get vaccinated in the fall after the shots have been around for some time, but worries that the community could see a spike in cases long before them.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Huntsman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.