Why are COVID-19 vaccination numbers declining in the U.S.?

covid vaccination rates declining in us
Photo via Puddin Tain/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A potentially concerning trend is developing, as COVID-19 vaccination numbers appear to be on the decline in the U.S. According to the Washington Post, the COVID vaccine rate has declined, slowing down in significant numbers for the first time since February.

More than 3 million people per week were still getting vaccinated by mid-April, but that number represented an 11% decline in the seven-day average of daily shots. That’s the sharpest decline since February when winter storms adversely affected significant portions of the U.S. It also coincides with the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine being paused while health officials reconsider its use. 

While half of all eligible Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, the declining COVID vaccine rate is concerning to health officials in part because it may be indicating lessening demand among those who haven’t yet received a vaccine. 

“Scores of counties from Iowa to Texas have begun to decline vaccine shipments, highlighting issues of hesitancy and barriers to healthcare that may hamper efforts to reach the levels of protection needed to halt the spread of the coronavirus,” the Washington Post article noted. 

President Biden sought to remove one significant barrier to vaccinations with an April 20 announcement pledging tax credits for employers that give their workers paid time off to receive and recover from inoculations.

“The time is now to open up a new phase of this historic vaccination effort,” Biden said. “To put it simply, if you’ve been waiting for your turn, wait no longer.”

There’s particular concern regarding vaccination efforts in rural counties. NPR did analysis of vaccination data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based on county, concluding that there are “signs of an emerging rural-urban divide” regarding vaccinations. 

“When looking at vaccination rates of all adults 18 and older,” the story noted, “rural counties appear to have largely kept pace with their urban counterparts, with rural rates on average landing within 5 percentage points of urban rates in most states.”

“However, among people who are 65 years old or older, the gap between rural and urban counties is wider in most states,” it continued. “Urban counties’ vaccination rates outpace rural ones in all but seven states for which there’s complete data. In 17 states, urban rates exceed rural rates by 5 or more percentage points.” 

The story, which included anecdotal evidence of people from urban areas signing up for vaccinations in rural countries early in the vaccination process, notes that wider availability of vaccines now indicates that vaccine hesitancy is likely a factor. 

“It would suggest that we’re potentially starting to see that trend [of rural/urban disparities] emerge because older adults, by and large, have had the opportunity to get vaccinated at this point,” Timothy Callaghan, a health policy researcher from Texas A&M University’s Southwest Rural Health Research Center, told NPR. 

Callaghan added, based on his own research, that those living in rural communities are significantly less likely to take preventative measures like mask-wearing and avoiding indoor restaurant dining.

“Where there’s more rural Americans who aren’t following these guidelines, that potentially leads to the need for more health messaging, so you can avoid negative outcomes,” Callaghan says, adding that political ideologies are contributing to the situation. 

Noting that there are more conservative individuals in rural areas, he assessed, “Those conservative individuals are less likely to vaccinate.” 

The Washington Post article noted that public health officials will need to try harder to vaccinate those in rural areas and to continue educating those who worry about the vaccine’s side effects and those who aren’t afraid of being infected by the coronavirus.

Kentucky Department for Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack observed, “This will be much more of an intense ground game where we have to focus on smaller events more tailored to address the needs and concerns of focused communities who have different sensitivities and different needs.” 

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Sources: Washington Post, NPR

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