Alabama's COVID-19 Vaccination Rate Is The Lowest In The U.S. And Infections Are Up Public health officials are sounding the alarm in Alabama, the state with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the country. New infections are spiking, yet fewer people are seeking shots.

Alabama's COVID-19 Vaccination Rate Is The Lowest In The U.S. And Infections Are Up

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Health officials in the South are sounding the alarm as COVID cases spike. The fourth wave of infection comes in a region with low vaccination rates and the rapid spread of the more contagious delta variant. In Alabama, hospitalizations are up fivefold since the beginning of July, and public health workers are battling the lowest vaccination rate in the country. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It's never been so easy to get a COVID vaccine in Mobile, Ala. The local health department has been setting up everywhere it can like this pop-up clinic at a food truck festival along the Mobile River.

(CROSSTALK)

ELLIOTT: Amid the hum of the food truck generators, nurses offer free jabs of all three available vaccines. Brittany Williams is ready to get her first dose.

BRITTANY WILLIAMS: If I cry, please don't laugh at me (laughter).

ELLIOTT: Williams is 32 and works in medical billing. She says she's alarmed by how many new COVID cases are around, both at work and in her own family. That's what convinced her to overcome her anxiety about the vaccine.

WILLIAMS: I really wanted more research to come out, and I didn't want to be the first, if that's, you know - just want to make sure that it was going to do what it was supposed to do. It's a little scary. And the virus is even scarier, so...

ELLIOTT: The nurses reassure her when she asks about possible side effects, including if it could affect her fertility. She's convinced and takes the shot.

WILLIAMS: Woo.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE: That wasn't bad, was it?

WILLIAMS: Oh, my God. OK. I did it.

ELLIOTT: Coming to places like this food truck festival or barbershops and flea markets is one strategy health officials are using to try to ramp up vaccines and reach younger age groups. Just 34% of Alabamians are fully vaccinated, ranking last in the country. And the vaccination rate is even lower on the Gulf Coast, now battling the highest per capita spread of COVID in the state, mostly the highly contagious delta variant. There have been outbreaks in daycares, sports camps and churches. Epidemiologist Rendi Murphree is director of disease control at the Mobile County Health Department. She says it's a frightening situation.

RENDI MURPHREE: That combination - low vaccination rates, delta variant, super-high numbers of cases occurring on a weekly basis - it's just spreading like wildfire.

ELLIOTT: She says the vaccine could be the firebreak, but getting people to take it means overcoming misinformation and mistrust. Local elected officials say they never imagined they'd be back in a crisis situation.

MERCERIA LUDGOOD: If we aren't able to figure out a way to get more people vaccinated, then we're going to be in the throes of this for years and years.

ELLIOTT: Merceria Ludgood is president of the Mobile County Commission. She says politics is also at play.

LUDGOOD: It's almost as if, if I don't get the vaccine, then this helps to make Biden fail.

ELLIOTT: In conservative Alabama, epidemiologist Rendi Murphree says she reminds people where the vaccination push came from.

MURPHREE: Project Warp Speed was a Republican administration effort, and the vaccine was developed not by the government but by scientists but with the full support of a Republican administration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOMMY TUBERVILLE: I'm Tommy Tuberville, your United States senator for the great state of Alabama. But you can call me coach.

ELLIOTT: Republican politicians have been recruited to get the message across.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUBERVILLE: We're on the 1-yard line, but we just need one more play to run it in. You can help us get the win against COVID by getting vaccinated.

ELLIOTT: Messaging aside, state policy curtails the response to this new wave of COVID. A new Alabama law, for instance, prevents governments, businesses, schools and colleges from requiring vaccines. And Republican Governor Kay Ivey rejects calls for mask mandates, even for unvaccinated kids in public schools, something the CDC recommended today. Ivey says she's done all she can to get the pandemic under control and is growing frustrated with people who won't get inoculated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAY IVEY: And it's time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It's the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.

ELLIOTT: Back at the Mobile food truck festival, the sense of urgency was getting through to vendor Lillie McCoy.

LILLIE MCCOY: We need some type of protection to help us get through this because I don't want to die, so we got to do our part by getting vaccinated.

ELLIOTT: She visited the pop-up clinic just before opening Soul Heaven Cafe, a food truck she runs with her husband. She got her first shot and wants him to as well.

MCCOY: An opportunity like this right here, I couldn't resist. Come on. You going to get yours? Come on.

ELLIOTT: But her husband Antonio Smith is rejecting the pressure. He says he wants more proof that the vaccine is safe, especially for someone like him with underlying health issues.

ANTONIO SMITH: How do I that it's going to protect me? That's all I want to know.

ELLIOTT: That's the kind of assurance health officials are trying to emphasize now that nearly all of Alabama's COVID hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Mobile.

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