U.S. Sees COVID-19 Numbers Rising In Areas Where Vaccination Rates Are Low NPR speaks with Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, an Arkansas Department of Health epidemiologist, about her state's rising number of COVID-19 cases how misinformation can hamper vaccination rates.

U.S. Sees COVID-19 Numbers Rising In Areas Where Vaccination Rates Are Low

U.S. Sees COVID-19 Numbers Rising In Areas Where Vaccination Rates Are Low

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NPR speaks with Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, an Arkansas Department of Health epidemiologist, about her state's rising number of COVID-19 cases how misinformation can hamper vaccination rates.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this country, Los Angeles County in California is waking up to new mask mandates. Coronavirus cases are rising there, other parts of the country face increasing infections. And one is the state of Arkansas, where new case rates are high, and vaccination rates are low. We've called Arkansas Department of Health epidemiologist Jennifer Dillaha. Dr. Dillaha, welcome.

JENNIFER DILLAHA: I'm glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: How serious is the surge where you are?

DILLAHA: Well, it is very serious. It is escalating to the degree that we are having a large number of people admitted to the hospital.

INSKEEP: And what does that mean for hospitals? Are they getting to the point where they might be running out of beds, running out of people, running out of supplies?

DILLAHA: Well, hospitals are already full with non-COVID patients. We've had a lot of people admitted to the hospital for other reasons, and they're struggling with staffing. The - so it's not so much the beds, the number of physical beds or the ventilators. It's the staff. And the staff are already burned out from this past year. It's - if the rates continue to go up the way they are now, we will double our hospitalizations in - by the beginning of August. And we will be as high as we were in the middle of the winter during the height of the pandemic here.

INSKEEP: Wow. Well, I have to note that during the middle of the winter, vaccines were not very widely available. Now, just about anybody who wants one over the age of 12 can get one. How is Arkansas doing with vaccinations?

DILLAHA: Our vaccination uptake has been low. We have a lot of people who are choosing not to get vaccinated, and they're being taken by surprise when they get sick. We have a lot of the delta variant circulating in our state. And people are underestimating how infectious it is and how quickly it can put them in the hospital.

INSKEEP: Where on earth would people be getting the idea that they don't face any particular danger from coronavirus?

DILLAHA: Well, you know, there are people in rural areas that the first time around when we were in the wintertime and had a lot of cases - it didn't really hit their communities. So it's not so real to them.

INSKEEP: The U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, is calling COVID' misinformation, quote, "an urgent threat to public health." I mean, we just have to turn on turn on Fox News or any number of other right-wing networks to hear vaccine skepticism or anger about vaccines or anger about the government forcing people to take vaccines, which, of course, isn't even happening. Does that disinformation penetrate where you are?

DILLAHA: I think that it does. There's a lot of misinformation out there. And people have trouble telling the difference between the real, accurate information and the disinformation because it sounds so plausible. They really need to talk with someone locally that they trust, maybe a health care provider, a doctor or pharmacist or a nurse, someone who's familiar with the vaccine to help sort that out for them.

INSKEEP: Yeah, well, I'm just thinking, when you talk about people in rural areas where they're a little more spread out and maybe they haven't really had a COVID problem - they look around in their own lives, and it doesn't seem like that serious a problem - are you able to mobilize rural health care providers, rural doctors, other credible people in communities to get accurate information to people now?

DILLAHA: Yes, we have vaccine available in about 1,800 locations around Arkansas. So it's not hard to get. And those vaccination providers are working hard to talk to the people that they encounter so that they can persuade them to get a vaccine. And then we are working to provide training to people who can make a difference in their communities or their organizations or just their peers, even if their non-health care professionals.

INSKEEP: In the meantime, is there a mask mandate in any part of Arkansas the way there now is again in Los Angeles County?

DILLAHA: No, we do not have a mask mandate. We now are prohibited by law from having a mask mandate in Arkansas.

INSKEEP: Are you at least encouraging people to mask if they're not vaccinated?

DILLAHA: Yes, I strongly encourage everyone who's not vaccinated to wear a mask. And for those people who wish to have an extra layer of protection, they need to wear a mask, too.

INSKEEP: Dr. Dillaha, thanks for your insights. And good luck to your state in what may be difficult times ahead.

DILLAHA: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Arkansas Department of Health epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Dillaha.

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