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What’s behind vaccine hesitancy in Southwest Colorado? Survey provides some answers

Study suggests majority of holdouts won’t be swayed; others are receptive to mandates and education
Ben Powell, a registered nurse, administers a COVID-19 vaccine dose to Kate Largent at a clinic held Feb. 13 at Ignacio Middle School. A study by RBI Strategies & Research commissioned by San Juan Basin Public Health shows many unvaccinated Coloradans continue to refuse the free vaccines. The roughly third of unvaccinated respondents identified as “persuadable” found information about the debilitating side effects of COVID-19, the comparative safety of the vaccine and the risk of harming those they care about as convincing reasons to get vaccinated. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

A new study commissioned by San Juan Basin Public Health shows the unvaccinated remain unlikely to take the vaccine, but mandates and persuasive messaging could motivate some.

RBI Strategies & Research conducted about 3,200 surveys from Oct. 19 to Oct. 21 to study vaccine hesitancy in Southwest Colorado and Western Slope residents. The research looked at the likelihood of vaccination among the unvaccinated, their reasons for not receiving the free shots and educational messages that could increase uptake.

“As we’re working to protect school-aged children and provide access to boosters for adults, our work continues conducting outreach and education with individuals who remain unvaccinated, especially in underserved communities,” Liane Jollon, the executive director of SJBPH, said in a news release.

“This research helps inform that work and the path forward in our ongoing efforts to address vaccine hesitancy and protect families in our community,” she said. “Our team is committed to educating all residents, with the understanding that it may take multiple conversations and more time to reach some deeply hesitant folks.”

Of the more than 3,000 surveys, 501 were from unvaccinated residents. The majority (65%) said they would not get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Almost half of respondents said that personal freedom and distrust of the government were driving their decision to remain unvaccinated. Another 19% said they already had COVID-19 and were naturally immune, though research has shown that the disease can reinfect people and vaccination reduces that likelihood.

Across all participants, 44% said mandates were their top reason for getting vaccinated. Of those who said they would not get the vaccine, 47% said mandates would make them think about getting vaccinated.

The study found that messaging about the harmful effects of COVID-19 and education about how the vaccine was developed made people more likely to take the vaccine.

The roughly third of unvaccinated respondents RBI Strategies & Research identified as “persuadable” found information about the debilitating side effects of COVID-19, the comparative safety of the vaccine and the risk of harming those they care about as convincing reasons to get vaccinated.

An explanation of how the government removed bureaucratic red tape to expedite vaccine development also made the unvaccinated more receptive.

Vaccination rates in Southwest Colorado reflect national trends, the data showed. Almost half of Republicans remain unvaccinated, while 6% of Democrats and 24% of unaffiliated are unvaccinated. Younger adults between the ages of 18 and 39 were about three times less likely to be vaccinated than those 65 and older.

About 30% of those surveyed said they trust no one when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine information, nearly the same percentage as those who said they trust their doctor.

The research is part of San Juan Basin Public Health’s push for better COVID-19 data on rural communities.

“Local public health departments in rural areas have operated with a scarcity of research gathered directly from their communities throughout the pandemic,” Chandler Griffin, a spokesperson for San Juan Basin Public Health, wrote in the news release. “Rural communities also face unique vaccine equity issues and barriers related to technology, access to information, transportation, language barriers, hesitancy and other factors.”

The research was fully funded by a grant SJBPH received from the Human Resources and Services Administration.

“We care deeply about the health and safety of Archuleta and La Plata counties and educating residents so they can make an informed decision to best protect their health and the health of their loved ones,” Jollon said in the news release. “We are fortunate to be able to share this research with our public health partners across the Western Slope and Southwest Colorado thanks to a grant from the federal government.”

RBI Strategies & Research also conducted focus groups of unvaccinated Southwest Colorado and Western Slope residents for SJBPH in September and October.

The results revealed much the same, with many unvaccinated skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccines. The most effective messaging focused on vaccine function, development and testing, the protection of loved ones and the risks of COVID-19 infection.

Vaccinations in La Plata and Archuleta counties have increased gradually in the second half of 2021 with a slight uptick in recent weeks.

In Archuleta County, 64% of adults and 57% of those eligible, which now includes those 5 years old and older, are fully immunized.

In La Plata County, 72% of adults and 65% of those eligible are fully immunized.


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