COVID-19 vaccinations in rural Louisiana dramatically behind state's urban areas
Rural Louisianans lag in the state’s urban residents in COVID-19 vaccinations by 31%, according to The Daily Advertiser's analysis of data from Louisiana’s Department of Health.
Rural parts of the state, like the Alexandria, Lake Charles and Acadiana regions, have lagged behind the state’s urban areas in vaccinations for months as eligibility for the shots has expanded, but recently released vaccination data for census tracts across Louisiana show the urban-rural disparity transcends regional boundaries.
More than half of Louisianans live in areas with fewer than 1,000 residents per square mile, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and those Louisianans are dramatically behind people who live inside the state’s cities and towns.
More than 2.5 million Louisianans live outside urban areas, and as of Thursday 17.4% of those residents have been vaccinated, compared to 25.1% of Louisianans who live in big cities and small towns across the state.
The difference amounts to nearly 100,000 more urban residents having started a COVID-19 vaccination regimen than rural residents in Louisiana, even though the state’s rural population outnumbers its urban areas by roughly 380,000 residents.
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Rural vaccinations slowed by access, hesitancy
Rural parts of Louisiana have struggled for access to COVID-19 resources throughout the past year of the pandemic, including testing limitations that allowed the virus to spread more quietly among the state’s rural residents early on.
Even this week, as eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccines was expanded to anyone over 16, residents of rural parishes have fewer places to find the vaccines in their areas, as more than 30 rural parishes across the state had less than five health care providers receive COVID-19 vaccines this week.
But lagging vaccination rates among rural residents goes beyond access limitations, as the newly released findings of a survey conducted by the Louisiana Public Health Institute showed Thursday.
Louisiana’s rural residents not only face limited options for access to COVID-19 vaccines, they are also less likely to want to get the shots in the first place, according to LPHI’s February survey of nearly 1,100 Louisiana adults.
Fifty-nine percent of rural Louisianans said they were either unwilling or hesitant to get vaccinated for COVID-19, compared to 48% of urban area residents. That difference was most pronounced among older, white residents of rural areas, according to LPHI, and wasn’t significant among rural and urban residents who were Black or under 45.
The result has been faster growth of new COVID-19 cases in rural areas in the weeks since most adults became eligible for the vaccines in Louisiana, despite overall lower per-capita caseloads in rural census tracts throughout the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to March 18, rural areas had reported 792 COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents throughout the course of the pandemic, about 3% fewer cases than the 813 cases per 10,000 residents reported in urban areas.
But in the past two weeks, new case growth in rural census tracts has outpaced growth in urban areas by 9%, a seemingly small rate, but one that could compound as more active cases lead to faster spread while vaccination rates are slow to increase.
A community approach to vaccination
Louisiana’s rural communities aren’t alone in lower vaccination rates, as the state’s Black population trails white residents in getting COVID-19 vaccines and expressed a similar rate level hesitancy about the vaccines in LPHI’s most recent survey, with 55% of Black residents unsure or unwilling to get the shots, compared to 37% of white residents.
The Louisiana Department of Health is looking to community partners to help to address the vaccine hesitancy prevalent in rural and Black communities by organizing prototype mass vaccination events across the state’s nine healthcare regions in the coming weeks through its Bring Back Louisiana campaign.
“For this first round, we're going to have two community vaccination events per region,” LDH spokesperson Kevin Litten said. “They’re going to be in locations well known to the community, comfortable places for the community to go.”
Litten said that by involving community partners like NAACP chapters and other local organizations, LDH hopes to overcome hesitancy over the COVID-19 vaccines by reaching those communities from within, rather than from Baton Rouge.
“We have to acknowledge that health care settings like pharmacies, hospitals or clinics are not always the most comfortable setting,” Litten said.
“We're really trying to do those in the settings where people are most comfortable and they may associate with a community leader,” he added. “It could be a pastor, sometimes it will be a state representative, it's going to be different for each region, but definitely that kind of trusted voice.”
By working with churches and other organizations within the state’s more vaccine hesitant community, LDH’s aim is to chip away at the share of residents who are still unsure about the COVID-19 vaccines while still providing expansive access to the shots for those communities in a way that is more personal than using National Guard members to run massive vaccination operations.
“We're gonna tailor it to the needs of that community,” Litten said. “You'll see street teams; you'll see phone banking; you'll see us making those arrangements through those partners to make sure that we take down any barrier that we can.”