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The Vaccination Rate Against COVID-19 Varies From State To State

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden had a goal - 70% of Americans would have at least one COVID vaccine shot by July 4. Now, that didn't happen, but it depends on where you look in the country. Some states have exceeded 70%; other states aren't even close. Here's Martha Bebinger from WBUR in Boston.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Back in January, Massachusetts was trailing most of the country on vaccinations, so the state switched strategies. It started opening mass vaccination sites at a convention center, malls and sports stadiums.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to the Gillette Stadium vaccination supersite.

BEBINGER: In parking lots typically packed with New England Patriot fans, Jumbotron speakers blasted vaccination appointment instructions.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please make sure you stay in your car until 15 minutes before your appointment.

BEBINGER: As many as 8,000 residents a day snaked through lines to a waiting syringe. And now, about 82% of Massachusetts adults have received at least one shot. In fact, all of the New England states have passed Biden's 70% goal.

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BEBINGER: Given that success, Massachusetts is closing big vaccination sites like this one at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Staff roll pallets of unused alcohol swabs, bandages and masks onto loading docks. Rodrigo Martinez is with the company that ran four of the mass sites.

RODRIGO MARTINEZ: As these sites sort of come to their mission completed, time to close, we need to keep pushing harder into the neighborhoods, into those locations that really need it.

BEBINGER: Locations where many of the still unvaccinated live. The state is targeting 20 lower-income communities with high COVID numbers and low vaccination rates, like Brockton. It's a diverse city with lots of essential workers who have suffered during the pandemic.

ISABEL LOPEZ: Bienvenue. Welcome.

BEBINGER: Isabel Lopez, a vaccine ambassador, says hello to just about everyone who stops by a park in Brockton. A city event is offering free food, music, legal immigration advice, help signing up for health insurance and vaccines.

LOPEZ: We are here bringing the communities together to make this a fun day and also a creative way to get people vaccinated.

BEBINGER: A big yellow touring bus converted to a mobile vaccination clinic idles in the parking lot. Lopez just scored a big win, persuading five members of the same household to board the bus, including Lenin Gomez. Gomez said he had doubts, but a nurse explained the vaccine would help protect children in his home.

LENIN GOMEZ: (Through interpreter) If I'm not fully protected, who will take care of the little ones? That's what opened my mind to get vaccinated.

BEBINGER: After Gomez gets his second shot, he can enter a state lottery for five $1 million jackpots. That's the latest in a series of raffles, prizes and gift cards Massachusetts is using to entice hesitant residents to roll up their sleeves. My colleague Blake Farmer joins us from Nashville. Hey, Blake, any big vaccine prizes in Tennessee?

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Hey, Martha. No vaccine lottery here in Tennessee or other Southern states. And these are states that have the country's lowest vaccination rates. In fact, if you look at certain rural pockets, they're nowhere near the 70% goal. Some counties still have 70% of residents unvaccinated.

KIRSTIE ALLEN: I had two vials in there.

FARMER: In the town of Linden, Tenn., nurse Kirstie Allen cracks open the vaccine fridge at the federally subsidized clinic. She says they're down to offering doses one day a week, usually less than 10.

ALLEN: First couple weeks we have people booked. And then after that, we had people start no showing. And we had a waiting list. People on the waiting list didn't want to come. It's kind of gradually just gotten worse.

FARMER: There's just a lot of vague skepticism. And Allen can sympathize. She's giving COVID shots, but she's not getting one herself. She says she's waiting for more research to see how everyone does over time.

ALLEN: Like, I'm one of those people who are unsure at the moment about getting it.

FARMER: This wait-and-see attitude is especially common among white rural conservatives in the South. But some holdouts are done waiting. Fifty-seven-year-old Laurel Grant was worried about side effects.

LAUREL GRANT: But everybody I know has done real good - you know, just maybe a little fever or a little tiredness.

FARMER: so she finally got her shot in June. It helped that the truck stop where she works offered a $75 bonus.

GRANT: There's a few down there at work that's like, oh, I'm not going to get it. And I'm like, yes, you are. You got to go, like it or not (laughter).

FARMER: Converts like Grant are being seen as the best kind of evangelist for this next phase of vaccinating latecomers. Tennessee's health department has started putting them in video testimonials to release online. But those marketing efforts are annoying some Republican state lawmakers. They're convinced the state's actually trying too hard. A recent hearing at the state legislature included threats of disbanding Tennessee's Health Department. State Representative Iris Rudder, among others, held up printouts of social media ads featuring kids smiling with Band-Aids on their shoulders.

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IRIS RUDDER: It's not your business to target children. It's your business to inform the parent that their child is eligible for the vaccination.

FARMER: The state's health commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, says she's not backing off on outreach, but she also doesn't think the situation is as dire as the low vaccination rates suggest. Tennessee had a huge surge of COVID during the winter. Piercey says that left at least 1 in 8 residents with some level of natural immunity. She says they're partially compensating for low vaccination rates.

LISA PIERCEY: I want everybody who wants a vaccine to get it, but what I really want at the end of the day is this pandemic to go away. And we're pretty close to getting there.

FARMER: But the outlook is less rosy in neighboring Arkansas. The state escaped the worst of the winter outbreaks. Now it's trying to stop flare-ups caused by the more contagious delta variant. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson says if nothing else will inspire Southerners to get vaccinated, perhaps reality will.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

BEBINGER: And I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SIX PARTS SEVEN'S "SILENCE MAGNIFIES SOUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.