Yellowstone County health officials changing tactics to spur slowing COVID-19 vaccination rates

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Posted at 12:20 PM, Jul 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-11 14:20:14-04

As the rate of new COVID-19 vaccines continues to fall in Yellowstone County, public health officials are changing tactics to convince the hesitant to get their shots – though the county’s public health officer fears there may be a greater population of the vaccine resistant.

With the days of mass vaccination clinics in the rearview mirror, officials at RiverStone Health say community outreach clinics and a new reliance on “trusted messengers” like family physicians will be key to boosting vaccination rates as Yellowstone lags behind other populous counties.

One such outreach clinic popped up at the St. John’s United summer concert series Thursday, July 8. As a Beatles celebration band entertained hundreds of attendees on the Billings retirement community’s lawn, St. John’s employee Aurelia Renfro received her second Moderna dose inside.

Renfro, who’s been working at St. John’s for a little more than a month, said she got her first vaccine in February, but struggled for months to schedule a second appointment. Between her personal schedule and a lack of stock at pharmacies, she was excited when her employer notified her they’d have the shot available at the concert.

“When I got the email today, I jumped on it, because I needed it,” Renfro said.

While Renfro is set to join the ranks of Montanans fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, the effort to vaccinate Yellowstone County has hit a road bump in recent weeks. Yellowstone County Public Health Officer John Felton identifies three main attitudes toward the vaccine: those who were eager to get their shot as soon as they became available, those on the fence about receiving their shot, and those resistant to getting vaccinated. Felton said the latter group is larger than health officials had anticipated.

“We thought we would continue to see some more increase in vaccine -- the hesitant folks worked through -- but really, there’s a lot of very resistant folks out there,” Felton said in an interview.

The Montana State COVID-19 tracking website lists 47% of eligible Montanans as fully vaccinated. Rates in Yellowstone County are slightly lower at 45%, but a divide emerges when compared to other populous areas. Missoula County sits at 60% fully vaccinated and Gallatin County at 54%. And, the number of vaccines administered in Yellowstone County has trended downward for weeks.

At 20 years old, Billings worker Trent Schuppe is a member of the least vaccinated eligible age group in Yellowstone County -- 12 to 30 year olds. Schuppe is holding out on getting his vaccine, citing concerns about the rapid development of the shot and stories he’s heard about potential side-effects.

“They’re talking about getting it out in this sort of short timeframe. There’s lots of risks with that, but there could also be benefits,” Schuppe said. “And so I was just kind of like, ‘I’m just going to sit on the fence for this one.”

Schuppe, who spent time in the U.S. Army and received many vaccines during his service, says he’s not anti-vaccine, adding he gets his flu shot every year. He says a few more dominoes need to fall for him to get in line for his COVID-19 doses.

“One I would say for sure is FDA approval, because it’s not FDA approved yet,” Shuppe said. “But as it gets more fine-tuned, and they figure out the right mixture or whatever it is, then, maybe I’ll consider [getting the vaccine].”

When it comes to converting the vaccine hesitant, health officials are placing increased faith on primary care providers as “trusted messengers,” relying on their ability to connect with patients to convince them the vaccines are safe and effective.

Dr. Brad Fuller owns Fuller Family Medicine in Billings and says he’s had success in convincing patients to get their shot – sometimes citing his own experience getting vaccinated.

“I’ll even say, ‘I got the vaccine, these were my side effects, this is what to expect,’ and just try to keep things honest with them,” Fuller said in an interview.

For Aurelia Renfro, choosing to get her shot was a decision she said required prayer and patience.

“I’m free now,” Renfro said. “I can ride on a plane, go anywhere, because I’m vaccinated.”

RiverStone Health is rolling out its next slate of community COVID-19 vaccine clinics for July. Clinics focus on getting children vaccinated before they return to school in August. The full list of clinics and more details for how to get the COVID-19 vaccine can be found at RiverStone Health’s COVID-19 website.