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In a Race Against Coronavirus Variants, Winning the Undecideds is Key

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Lisa Autry
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It’s campaign season in Kentucky and the rest of the country, but not in the political sense. 

A vaccination campaign is underway against highly contagious coronavirus variants that are particularly a threat to unvaccinated individuals.  As Kentucky marks three consecutive weeks of increasing COVID-19 cases, the key to beating the virus remains winning the undecideds. 

The Bluegrass State confirmed more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the highest single-day increase the commonwealth has seen since March 11.  On top of that, the Delta variant has become the dominant and most aggressive strain in the state.  Given that it's more fatal than other variants,  Myrna Denny decided it was time to get vaccinated. 

“Relax, deep breath. Relax those shoulders," instructed a healthcare worker at Denny's appointment.

Denny was at a mass vaccination clinic run by the Medical Center in Bowling Green.  She’d been hesitant to get the shot after having an allergic reaction to the flu vaccine several years.

“I was afraid and thought you can’t live like a hermit forever, and now that they’re having these new variants that are supposed to be worse than the COVID, I felt like you shouldn’t take chances, that you should go ahead and get your shot, if nothing else, for your family," Denny said.

Denny has seen the worst of COVID-19, losing her husband within five days of contracting the virus last fall.

“So I thought it was very important to get it so we don’t lose anyone else in the family," she said. "I’ve stayed away from the family and have missed out on a lot of things by not having my vaccine.”

Not only did she lose her husband, but Denny and her son also contracted the virus.  Months later, her lungs are still weak. She has an oxygen tank with her at the vaccine appointment.

Across the clinic, Dalmatia Hampton, 62, was getting immunized, six months after the vaccine became available.  Like other late-adopters, Hampton said he was bit skeptical of the vaccine, especially after the federal government paused the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“I feel like it was necessary for me going around other people," explained Hampton. "At first I hesitated. I was skeptical at first, but felt it was in my best interest and everybody around me to go ahead and get it done.”

When the vaccines first started rolling out late last year and early this year, many people had to wait to schedule appointments for the shots. But now, many vaccines are going unused, as demand has waned.  Dr. Melinda Joyce helps oversee the Medical Center’s vaccination clinic that’s been open since December.

“At the height, we were probably giving between 800-900 vaccines a day, and today, for example, we’ll give about 100," Dr. Joyce said.

The clinic here has scaled back vaccination schedules from six days a week to only two.  Despite the state's vaccine incentive sweepstakes and the fast-spreading Delta variant, Dr. Joyce says there’s been no spike in vaccine interest.  There has been an increase in hospitalizations at the Medical Center in the past week or so, and 80% of those admitted were not vaccinated. 

Ernestine Pierce, 85, doesn’t want to become part of that statistic, and recently got vaccinated at the Medical Center clinic.  She didn’t mean to wait this long, but she spent time caring for her adult son who caught the virus. Now, she’s rolling up her sleeve for others in her family.

“I got four grandkids, eight great grandkids, and two great, great grandkids. I just think about that, and if there’s kids involved, you need to," Pierce said. "Everybody should have it done. I think if they would’ve had it done, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in right now, including her."

Pierce nudges her great-granddaughter sitting beside her in a post-vaccination waiting area at the clinic.  Kaleigh Webb, 18, shrugs her shoulders when asked why she hasn’t taken the leap yet.

"I’ve heard a lot of stuff, so I don’t know," Webb said. "I mean, a lot of people in my family have gotten it, but I’m still iffy about it. I just want to see more research on it before I get it.”

At 85 and 18, Pierce and Webb represent the age divide among the vaccinated population.  Eighty-three percent of Kentuckians 65 and older have received the vaccine, while 18 to 29-year-olds have only a 36% vaccination rate. Just over 51% of Kentucky’s total population has received at least one shot of vaccine.  This hesitancy has become a new epidemic of sorts, fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories. 

In a news conference this week, Gov. Andy Beshear warned Kentuckians if they haven’t been vaccinated or already contracted COVID-19, they will likely get the more deadly Delta variant.

"But folks, it’s entirely avoidable, which it wasn’t in the past," Beshear said. "The hospitalizations, the deaths, the ICU numbers, are totally avoidable if you get vaccinated.”

The head of the CDC told a Senate committee this week the Delta variant represents 83% of all new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., but health experts say the solution comes in two shots or one.  Both the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as well as the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine appear highly effective in fighting the coronavirus and the Delta variant.

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