The state continues to make national headlines and for all the wrong reasons. COVID-19 cases continue to be on the rise and vaccination rates are struggling to climb. Arkansas has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country with only a third of its residents deciding to roll up their sleeves. The state is scrambling to move the needle, literally. We are a month away from school reopening and no mask mandate in place, low vaccination rates, and the current increase in cases, what could possibly go wrong?

Only 33 percent of the county’s residents are fully vaccinated. Vaccine hesitancy is unique to each individual. Those that I have spoken with have listed reasons from medical, political, skepticism in the science, and fear from the long term side effects of the vaccine.

Arkansas is just one of six southern states with vaccination rates well below the national average. Leading some to believe that the pandemic and the conversations around vaccines – like everything else in our culture – have become largely politicized. States with Republican leadership have looser restrictions when it comes to mask mandates and other public health directives. In an interview with KARK, Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Bledsoe suggested last week that progressive positions taken by some in academia on other social issues has greatly diminished their credibility in republican states when it comes to the pandemic. “They see them as adversaries. That colors these conversations going forward and I think there has been too much of that inflammatory rhetoric and so now we’re in a situation where we have a public health crisis and a lot of the red-state, conservative voters have tuned these people out,” said Bledsoe.

Arkansas has employed a varying amount of strategies from utilizing local celebrity voices, offering free lottery tickets, and hunting and fishing licenses all in an attempt to incentivize vaccinations. These messages continue to fall on deaf ears and skepticism continues to be one of the state’s biggest enemies. Arkansas is among many states who have rolled out incentive programs. There is little to no evidence that these programs are having any significant impact on vaccination rates.

The governor is continuing a series of community conversations across the state in an attempt to get ahead of a possible surge in cases. Public health officials have been sounding the alarm that such a surge is possible and looming here in the state. The much more contagious “delta variant” is currently spreading at a much faster rate.

It is an issue the state has grappled with since the onset of the pandemic over a year ago. One of the most effective means of changing opinions is having a case hit close to home. Seeing has become believing for many families. For others the process of making the decision to get the shot is much more complicated. Mistrust in government and conflicting messaging from the scientific community have made the decision making process for families even more complicated.

At the end of the day the decision to become vaccinated is a personal one. One thing we can not get into the practice of doing is judging one another based on responses to the pandemic. What might be right for some families will not necessarily be right for others.

In our case we chose to get vaccinated to protect our aging parents and others who are vulnerable in our community. It might be my choice to continue to mask up despite receiving the vaccine. One thing is for sure the state has removed almost all the barriers for people to get a shot, the rest is up to them. Together we can move the needle and one day we will be on the other side of this pandemic. Until then take care of yourself and stay safe, we are still in a pandemic.

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