Health leaders to point to vaccine hesitancy as Tennessee lags behind other states

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Dr. Lisa Piercey said she expected to see vaccine hesitancy among minority and low-income groups. The hesitancy among rural conservatives has surprised her.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — In Tennessee, roughly 1 in 9 people are considered fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received either one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, or two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

That’s well below the national average, where 1 in 6 people have been fully vaccinated. Tennessee’s health commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, said Tennessee is struggling with vaccine uptake. 

“As long as uptake is low, our rankings are going to be pretty low, because we do not make this this vaccine mandatory,” she said. “Our uptake has been lower than expected.”

Convincing Tennesseans to get the vaccine is a challenge TDH expected from the beginning, according to Dr. Piercey.

“We already anticipated and understood the hesitancy in communities of color and in low income communities,” she said. “The hesitancy amongst rural conservatives has surprised us some.”

The state is now looking for the best ways to share information about vaccines with that demographic.

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“We’re talking to groups where a lot of rural conservatives tend to gather and get together,,” Dr. Piercey said. “What is it that’s causing the hesitancy? And how can we overcome that?”

Meanwhile, community leaders lare helping underserved communities get the information necessary to make an informed decision.

“[Different communities] have their own trusted messengers,” said Vivian Shipe with I AM The Voice of the Voiceless. “What we do is we get the information, the brochures into their hands, then they put their logo on it or their people’s faces and they go into the community and encourage their people to get the shot.”

Shipe said she’s talked to people on both sides of the vaccine decision.

“You have those that cannot wait. They’re waiting for their tier to open up because they want to get the shot,” she said. “Then you have those that are fearful, that are scared…  I think they’re more scared of the needle than they are of the actual shot itself.”

Experts estimate around 70 percent of the population will need to get vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity. As of March 23, roughly 12 percent of Tennesseans are fully vaccinated. 

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