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Carman: An examination of rural Colorado’s coronavirus vaccine resistance

On a trip to the state's southwestern corner, the rural/urban divide stood out in sharp relief, and statistics told the rest of the story

The heat shimmered from the pavement and a smoky haze from Western wildfires made the sunsets a vivid orange on our road trip to Mancos last weekend. We hiked, reconnected with friends after a long time apart and toasted with local cider to the miracle of vaccination. 

This was freedom. 

For us, COVID was mostly in the rearview mirror. We were on vacation, hugging our friends and sharing meals across the same table instead of interrupting each other tediously on Zoom.

Diane Carman

We had our lives back. We’d made it.

But not everybody was as ready as we were to end the pandemic wars. 

Across Colorado, dueling positions remain deeply entrenched. 

It’s not about masks anymore. They’re mostly along the sides of the roads, clinging to the tumbleweeds.

This summer it’s all about the vax, and who gets the shots says it all.

While little San Juan County was rockin’ a vaccination rate above 89%, down the road Mesa and Dolores counties had rates less than half that.

And their cases of COVID mirror those realities.

State data last week showed that while San Juan County reported fewer than eight cases of COVID over a two-week period, the two-week cumulative case rate (a calculation of the number of cases based on a population rate per 100,000) was 421 in Mesa County and 589 in Dolores County. 

That’s a whole lot of folks suffering from a miserable, life-threatening – and preventable – disease to make a point … or something. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

While San Juan County is a vivid exception, across Colorado vaccination rates reflect the longstanding rural/urban divide. As we drove past the ranches, canyons, mesas and sage-studded landscapes, I tried to understand what makes us think so differently about this seemingly straightforward choice on whether to get vaccinated.

To me, it seemed a no-brainer. Tired of the pandemic restrictions? Get the shots. Done.

So, what are rural folks thinking?

I looked at the flags (an occasional Confederate banner amid the proud Stars and Stripes), the handmade signs (one proclaiming “F**k Biden”) and the bumper stickers (Wall Drug!?!) for clues. 

It still made no sense to me.

OK, scratch that. One aspect does make sense and that is the matter of perceived risk. 

For a long time in 2020, rural Colorado seemed immune to the virus as the toll rose in cities and resort communities. When the pandemic did find rural outposts, it threatened to decimate small-town health care resources. That should have grabbed everyone’s attention.

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Still, the specter of the heavy hand of government bearing down to tell the stubbornly independent rural folks what to do seemed like a cure more dangerous than the disease itself to a lot of folks. 

But clearly there’s much more. 

The pressure of religious, political and cultural forces in often remote rural communities creates a self-perpetuating resistance to new things. Hostility toward urban elitism, often equated with higher education levels, vegan diets and some admittedly weird wellness routines, further reinforces a culture of deliberate isolationism.

A poll conducted this spring by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that it was a matter of attitude more than lack of access – or anything else – at play in why rural communities across America so often have low vaccination rates.

Among those rural folks who said they would “definitely not” get the vaccine were people who identified as: Republicans, 73%; white evangelicals, 41%; and adults without a college degree, 87%. A lot of rural folks said they thought the vaccines were too new, or that the side-effects were worse than getting COVID (a demonstrably false notion), but many in this particular group were among those who said they might get the shots … eventually. 

And some of them said straight out that they would get vaccinated if former President Trump (who was among the very first Americans to be vaccinated in the days before he left the White House) strongly urged them to get the shots.

Which proves, at least to me, that they may not be such independent thinkers after all.

So here we are with a public health emergency declared in Mesa County, where the more severe and more contagious variant of COVID first identified in India is showing up all over the place, the cases are almost exclusively occurring among unvaccinated people, hospitals are nearing capacity, and vaccination rates continue to sag.

All that’s left to do after providing all the free clinics, the educational campaigns, the public service announcements and the vaccination incentives – free beer, free doughnuts and a chance to win $1 million – is to stand back and honor the choices of those who refuse the vaccines. 

Just leave them alone.

They may come around, but only on their own. And if nothing else, they could demonstrate to the rest of the world waiting impatiently for access to COVID-19 vaccine what the stuff is really worth.

The data will be there for all to see.

The rural resisters also just may inadvertently prove one of my favorite lines from environmentalist Rob Watson, who points out that politics is nothing in a contest with chemistry, biology and physics.

Mother Nature is chemistry, biology and physics, after all, he says, and “Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1,000.”


CORRECTION: This column was updated June 20, 2021, at 11:52 a.m. to correct the coronavirus cumulative incidence case rates for Dolores and Mesa counties. The state of Colorado reports cumulative incidence case rates — an estimate of the risk that an individual will experience a COVID-19 infection — as a rate per 100,000 people.



Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.


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