The Amish communities in northeast Ohio deal with life together in textbooks. Families eat, work, and attend church together, and the pandemic has made mask wear and physical distancing spotty. This has resulted in these communities experiencing high rates of infection and death.
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Even so, health officials are making efforts to encourage residents to get vaccinated against Covid-19. Holmes County, where half the population is Amish, has the lowest vaccination rate in Ohio, with only 10% of the population being fully vaccinated.
“About less than one percent [of Amish] come in, ”said Michael Derr, Holmes County’s health commissioner.
Marcus Yoder, who was born an Amish and is now a Mennonite, said the few Amish who get the shots do so privately through doctor’s offices and small rural clinics – and they generally keep it to themselves.
“There were Amish people who were vaccinated the same day as me … and we all kind of looked at each other and smiled under our masks, assuming we weren’t going to say we saw them,” Yoder said .
Many Amish don’t want to get vaccinated because they already have Covid and believe the area has reached herd immunity, he said.
“I think one of the main driving forces is the misinformation about Covid itself – that it is no more serious than the flu,” said Yoder, who lives in Holmes County and is still closely associated with the religion and community. “They say, ‘Well, it didn’t affect me that much. Look at all of these old people who survived. ‘”
Anti-vaccination conspiracy theories have also spread across the community, and there is a lack of awareness of the contagious variants that are spreading across the country, Yoder said.
“Unfortunately, I think we will see more cases in our community for this reason,” he said. “There’s just a lot of eager news fatigue. They just don’t want to hear about it, and that’s really unfortunate. “
While some kind of herd immunity could explain why Holmes currently has a low incidence of new cases, Derr from the health department is concerned that those who previously had the virus may not be protected.
“As a region, we definitely got through the winter and we know it happened about 90 days ago,” said Derr. “We are prepared and ready for another increase because we are not vaccinating enough.”
Health officials in Indiana and Pennsylvania are also increasing coverage in heavily Amish areas. Local health departments in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, home to the largest Amish population in the country, are partnering with Amish bishops to promote the vaccines.
The widespread reluctance to be vaccinated in Amish communities comes as no surprise to West Virginia University sociologist Rachel Stein, who studies Amish populations across the country.
“We, as non-Amish, are more on board in preventive medicine,” said Stein. “You certainly don’t think that we have to do things to prevent this from happening.”
Instead, she said, there is an acceptance of people getting sick and getting better – or not. While vaccinations for children in Ohio’s Amish communities have increased in recent years, adults are still reluctant, she added.
“Whooping cough outbreaks are common in a settlement, and it’s like …” This is happening now. We are in whooping cough season and it is time to look into things like that, ”she said.
In 2014, an outbreak of measles spread rapidly to the largely unvaccinated Amish communities in Ohio. Even after this experience, many Amish residents chose not to vaccinate their children against other diseases.
The low vaccination interest in Holmes County also follows national trends showing that rural residents are less likely to consider getting vaccinated.
A recent survey by KFF found that 3 out of 10 rural residents “definitely not” are receiving a covid vaccine or are only vaccinated when required to do so.
Yoder believes the best way forward is to encourage Amish residents who received the vaccine to speak openly about their positive experiences with the recordings.
“I think hammering people who don’t will not get us anywhere,” said Yoder. “Some of the local business leaders have said very, very well, ‘Look, let’s vaccinate so we don’t have to wear masks in the future, so we don’t have to worry so much about social distancing in the future.’ And they used that approach, and it was a healthy way to approach that. “
Derr tries to get business owners who employ Amish workers to encourage their employees to get a chance. Health officials are hoping to have vaccination clinics at these companies at some point and take the recordings on them, but not every business owner is okay with that yet, he said.
“People will listen to their friends and family, people they interact with more, and it will be this phone effect,” he said. “The more people we tell about it and the better experiences they have, the more word will get around.”
Derr anticipates that more Amish will be vaccinated in the fall after the shots have been fired for some time, but fears that the community may see an increase in cases well in advance.
This story is part of a partnership that includes WCPN-Ideastream, NPR and KHN.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces extensive journalism on health issues. Alongside Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three most important operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a foundation that provides health information to the nation.
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