COVID vaccinations are climbing, slowly, in rural North Carolina. But skepticism remains

By Sarah Nagem

Rita Watson had chosen not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. She was worried about what was in the shots and whether they were safe. 

But when her 41-year-old daughter contracted the virus and became severely ill, Watson reconsidered. She and her four sons went to the Robeson County Health Department on Thursday to be vaccinated. 

“I decided, seeing my daughter in that hospital, I was bringing myself and my kids up here,” said Watson, 58, of Fairmont. 

New COVID cases have been surging in southeastern North Carolina, as they have across the state and the country, putting another strain on hospitals that hoped to be in the homestretch of the pandemic. 

But health experts say a few factors are convincing some people who had been skeptical of the vaccine to finally get the shot: a rise in cases mostly caused by the delta variant, a sharp upswing in the percentage of positive COVID tests and the promise of $100 gift cards from the state.

Pam Locklear, a nurse at the Robeson County Health Department, administers the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. Photo by Sarah Nagem

In Robeson County, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in North Carolina, 354 people were vaccinated at the health department between Monday morning and mid-afternoon Thursday this week. That compares to fewer than 200 people two weeks ago, according to the department. 

“People are taking a look at the numbers and realizing there’s an urgent need,” said Melissa Packer, assistant health director for the Robeson health department. 

Terri Duncan, director of the health department in nearby Bladen County, said she has also seen an “increased interest” in the vaccine, although not at the level of when the shots first became available. On a recent day, she said, three generations of a local family got the vaccine together. 

Across North Carolina, more than 109,000 doses of the vaccine were administered the week of July 26, up from about 79,000 doses the week of July 5, data shows. 

Even so, hospitals say they are struggling to keep up as more people, many of them younger adults, are getting sick. And experts say they still have a long way to go with vaccinations, particularly in this rural part of the state where rates are lagging. 

Last week, UNC Health Southeastern in Robeson County made a public plea: Don’t go to the emergency room unless you’re very sick, because there’s just no more room. The hospital encouraged people to go to their primary care doctor or an urgent care facility instead. 

The number of COVID patients at UNC Health Southeastern increased over the past month, from a low of seven to 33 on Monday, according to James Granger, business development officer for the hospital. 

Hospital admissions have risen in other nearby counties since July 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: up 500% in Bladen, 146% in Columbus and 59% in Scotland. 

‘Think we know everything’

Watson said her daughter, LaShawna Watson-Baker, spent several days in the hospital, first in Scotland County and then in Chapel Hill. 

“I couldn’t do nothing but pray to God,” Watson said. “I thought we were going to lose her.” 

Miraculously, Watson said, her daughter is now recovering at home. She needs a walker to get around because her muscles are still weak. 

On Thursday, Watson asked a nurse administering the vaccine if the shot was safe. The nurse responded with a rundown of potential side effects and urged Watson to do more research. 

Ultimately, Watson said she was relieved to get it done. But skepticism remains for many in this community. 

Only 27% of Robeson County’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID, compared to 47% statewide. Reasons for opting out of the vaccine seem to span the spectrum, from religion to politics to history. 

“I believe you need to have faith in the Lord and not have fear,” said Karen Ibasco, 51, who was helping out at a shop in downtown Pembroke this week. “We all have a death date.” 

Ibasco said she does not have plans to get the vaccine, but she wears a mask in public settings. 

In Lumberton, 44-year-old barber Stoney Stone said he was worried the vaccines were released too quickly, before they got full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

Stone said he is a supporter of Republican Donald Trump, and he wonders if the pandemic was manufactured by those who do not approve of the former president. 

“I think the government unleashed it on all of us,” Stone said. “Was this something to make (Trump) look bad or hurt the economy?” 

But Stone said he planned to get the COVID vaccine at an open house for his son’s school. He wants to protect his family, he said, and he predicts states will take a cue from New York City and require proof of vaccination for some activities. 

Stoney Stone, a 44-year-old barber in Robeson County, said he was skeptical of the vaccine, but he planned to get the shot to help protect his family.
Photo by Sarah Nagem

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced last week that the vaccination status of all state employees would be verified. Those who are not vaccinated must wear a mask and undergo weekly COVID testing. 

The state Department of Health and Human Services also encouraged private-sector businesses to verify each worker’s status.

But Stone said many people don’t take kindly to the government telling them what to do. “We’re a bunch of Southerners who think we know everything,” he quipped. 

Frank Evans, 72, was blunt: “I think a lot of it is a bunch of crap,” he said. 

Evans said he got the vaccine “to preserve my own life” and to keep others safe. But, he said, “That was after I did my own research, not because the government told me.” 

Geoffrey Townsend, 41, received his first dose of the COVID vaccine at the Robeson County Health Department on Thursday, swayed by the rise in cases and his mother’s threat that she wouldn’t make him a home-cooked meal until he went. 

Townsend, who is Black, said he had been scared of the vaccine. He cited the Tuskegee experiment in which the government studied, under false pretenses, the effects of syphilis on hundreds of Black men between the 1930s and the 1970s. 

“That’s an issue that we talk about a lot,” Townsend said. 

His uncle died of COVID, he said, and then a former classmate. That’s when his mother really urged him to get inoculated. 

But Townsend said he worried what his friends might say about his decision. 

“When they find out I got the shot, they’re going to get on me,” he said. “I might not tell them I got the shot.” 

‘Data and science are clear’

More than 4,300 new COVID cases were reported in North Carolina on Thursday, a drastic jump from 375 a month earlier. As of mid-week, 10.4% of COVID tests in the state came back positive, according to DHHS. Health officials say the goal is 5% or lower.

During a press briefing Thursday, Cooper said the spike in cases “is driven by the unvaccinated.”

“The data and the science are clear that getting the COVID vaccine dramatically lowers the chance of severe illness, hospitalization and death,” he said. “These vaccines are safe and effective, and they are the key to getting to end this pandemic.” 

Of the 30 COVID patients isolated at UNC Health Southeastern on Friday, 27 were unvaccinated, the hospital said.

Scotland County on Monday had 93 active COVID cases, mostly involving people who were not vaccinated, said Kathie Cox, health director for the health department there. Twelve were among school-age children, and 19 were among people who were fully vaccinated against COVID, she said.

Those who were fully vaccinated are “recovered,” she said.

The delta variant is “deadly, and it’s very scary,” Cox said. Infections caused by the variant are more contagious and could lead to more severe illness among those infected, according to the CDC.

Cox said Scotland County is “slowly but surely” seeing an increase in administered vaccines, and the health department encourages everyone to practice the three W’s: wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your social distance. 

Tamra Bullard, a nurse at the Robeson County Health Department, administered the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to Geoffrey Townsend on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Photo by Sarah Nagem

“People need to really be concerned about who’s at a greater risk of catching and spreading COVID-19,” Cox said. 

Health officials say they’re hoping for a bigger increase in vaccinations since some counties are offering $100 gift cards to those who get their first dose and $25 gift cards to those who drive someone to get the shot. 

On Thursday, 54 people were slated to get a $100 gift card at the Robeson County Health Department by about 1 p.m., officials said. Another 16 were expected to receive a $25 card. 

“I think it’s working,” Packer said of the financial incentives. 

For Watson, the fear of losing her daughter was too much to bear. “Getting the shot is the best thing for people to do right now,” she said.