We’ve had an abundance of diaries about how anti-vaxxers are running rampant in deep-red rural counties across the country. But this diary is different — it’s about people fighting the disinformation spread on Facebook and by word-of-mouth to save lives in their communities which have alarmingly low vaccination rates.

Sarah Varney, a reporter for the non-profit Kaiser Health News, visited several rural Kentucky counties. Her story was then picked up by the NPR website and other news outlets.


Among the counties Varney visited was Leslie County in the eastern Kentucky coal fields. In the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump won the county with 91% of the vote to Joe Biden’s 9%.

In Leslie County, only 46% of the population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. About 74% of seniors over age 65 have been fully vaccinated, below the national average of more than 80%, according to the New York Times COVID Tracker.

In Kentucky, people 60 and older account for nearly 90% of the more than 9,100 deaths related to COVID-19. 

At least Kentucky has a Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, but he has to deal with a recalcitrant Republican-controlled legislature. Beshear has called the coronavirus situation in the state “dire.” 

For much of September, new case counts were topping 4,000 a day, but have since fallen by about 50%, according to the New York Times Covid Tracker. In some regions, hospital intensive care units are still at capacity,, with COVID-19 patients occupying half the beds.

So Varney reported that in remote rural hamlets where ministers are trusted advisers, local health agencies have tried “to enroll churches in the all-hands-on-deck vaccination effort.”

She wrote that public health workers are going house by house, church by church, “trying to outsmart the fantastical tales spread on Facebook about the COVID-19 vaccines, while also helping residents overcome the everyday hurdles of financial hardship and isolation.”

One of the ministers who agreed to help with the vaccination effort was Pastor Billy Joe Lewis in the town of Smilax in Leslie County. 

Here is an excerpt from Varney’s story:

In the end it was the delta variant that drove Rose Mitchell, 89, down the winding mountain road in Smilax, Ky., to the Full Gospel Church of Jesus Christ to get the shot. Her pastor, Billy Joe Lewis, had told his congregation that, No, ma’am, a COVID-19 vaccine would not leave the “mark of the beast” nor rewrite their genetic codes.

Mitchell, who has known the deaths of eight of her 13 children over the years, was done taking chances with the virus stealing up the valleys along Cutshin Creek.

“That stuff’s getting so bad, I was afraid to not take it,” she says, sitting in her daughter’s car in the church parking lot. “I said, ‘Well, if all the rest of them are going to take it, I’ll take it too.’ ”

Some church leaders have refrained from encouraging vaccination, afraid of offending congregants in a state where mistrust of government intrusion runs deep. But not Lewis, who helped build Full Gospel Church on a rare flat parcel of land in 1972 and has led it ever since. Lewis, who has thick silver hair and a luminous smile, spends long stretches of the day in prayer, and he says God told him to protect his flock.

Now make no mistake. Lewis is a conservative Bible-thumping pastor who preaches that old time  religion. He is against abortion and trans rights. He opposes national vaccine mandates, fearing that it will lead to a worldwide mandate that will be a sign that the End Times are near.

But he’s not one of those megachurch hucksters preaching the prosperity gospel. And he genuinely seems to care about members of his congregation. 

He belives in praying to God to lift the pestilence of the coronavirus from the nation.But unlike those anti-vaxxers that Kos writes about who call on “prayer warriors” once they’re hospitalized with COVID, Lewis tries to counter the vaccine disinformation in a language his congregation understands and  persuade them to get vaccinated.

In a video of a sermon posted last month on his church’s Facebook page, Lewis said:

”I’ve had all kinds of questions about the coronavirus and the vaccinations … I have had diferent ones to ask me is this the Mark of the Beast, and I want to tell you this is not the Mark of the Beast. The Mark of the Beast is going to be in the forehead or in the right hand. … What I’m trying to say is that I think it’s good for people to get vaccinated if they feel to do so.”

Maxine Shepherd, a regional health coordinator for Leslie County,has been a decades-long member of Lewis’ Full Gospel Church. At Sister Maxine’s urging, Lewis agreed to hold a drop-in vaccine clinic in the church’s parking lot, which he promoted from the pulpit and on the church’s Facebook page.

“We’ve still got to use common sense,” Lewis told Varney. “Anything that can ward off suffering and death, I think, is a wonderful thing.”

Announcement from the Facebook page of the Full Gospel Church of Jesus Christ

Lewis held a funeral service for a 53-year-old unvaccinated coal miner, suspended Sunday indoor church services for months after more members fell ill, and last year and this year canceled Homecoming, a yearly fall gathering of area churches.

Varney observed that the virulence of the delta variant has convinced some holdouts to get the vaccine. A pregnant 23-year-old grocery store worker in Salyersville went in a torrential rain to her county health department because she feared the hospital would not let her hold her newborn baby if she remained unvaccinated.

The worker told Varney that she was “a fence-straddler” and the topic of to vaxx or not to vaxx came up nearly every day among her co-workers.

A few dozen people showed up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a recent Salyersville health fair, where they each received $25 Walmart cards and an entry in a raffle for a Fitbit or Instant Pot.

James Shepherd, who is both Salyerville’s mayor and director of the Magoffin County Health Department, said his close friend, the captain of the county rescue squad died of COVID-19 last month despite being vaccinated and bemoaned his county’s low 44% vaccination rate, Varney wrote.

In Louisa, Ky., COVID-19 ravaged the The Jordan Center nursing home last winter, infecting nearly every resident. Once the coronavirus shots became available, its director, David McKenzie, and his staff went room to room to explain to every resident the science behind the vaccine. He also gathered staff members, still shaken by the deaths of residents, to encourage them to get vaccinated, acording to the KHN story.

McKenzie said that nearly every resident of The Jordan Center has been vaccinated with three shots, and that about 85% of the staff is vaccinated.

Misty Robertson, a registered nurse whose father was a resident of the nursing home and died of COVID in January, has been trying to persuade the holdout staff members to get their shots.

“I’m not mean about it,” she told Varney. “I say, ‘I really don’t want you to be on a vent and die.’ ”

Robertson added that she gets mad and vehemently disputes the conspiracy theories circulating through the town’s social media networks. She admitted that she sometimes goes too far. “I was put in Facebook jail.”

McKenzie’ said he’s faced pushback for his public stance in favor of getting vaccinated. He said a customer attacked him at Walmart and threatened to wait for him in the parking lot.

Most of his unvaccinated staffers work the night shift and have threatened to quit if mandated to take the vaccine. They told him they would leave health care and go work at Tractor Supply “where they can make more money per hour.”

Too often there’s a condescending attitude expressed toward residents of rural America. We may not be able to change their political views, but if we’re going to vaccinate our way out of the pandemic, we need to find those local influencers who speak their language and are not afraid to stand up to the conspiracy theorists spreading disinformation. 

(Corrects that Smilax is in Leslie County, instead of Wayne County. Adds details on Smiley County presidential election results and COVID figures for county.)

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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