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Two years on, one Ohio county is still trying to get people the COVID shot

Ashland County’s new mobile clinic looks just like a doctor’s office.

A handwashing station, refrigerator to store vaccines and exam table are all neatly tucked inside the big white van.

“We will have our patients sit here,” said Jenna Gerwig, the director of nursing for the Ashland County Health Department, pointing to an empty chair.

It’s where patients can get a blood pressure reading, a cholesterol test, weight check…or a COVID shot.

“Of course, we do encourage the COVID vaccine always,” Gerwig said, “but that will not be the only vaccine we will be providing on the unit.”

This van was purchased using leftover COVID-19 relief funds. When the health department requested the money, it emphasized the need for a mobile unit to host COVID testing and vaccination clinics.

But now that the van is in hand, that’s not necessarily how the health department is presenting it to the community.

“Even if you do not want immunizations, there are still other services we can provide with a mobile clinic,” Gerwig said. “So either way, check us out.”

That’s because a lot of people here aren’t interested in the COVID vaccine.

Vaccine hesitancy in Ashland County

Ashland County, located partway between Columbus and Cleveland, has some of the lowest COVID vaccination rates in the state.

Less than half of people there have gotten the shot, according to the Ohio Department of Health. In the county’s more remote villages, like Polk and Nova, which have large Amish populations, a local news outlet reports only nine percent of people have gotten the vaccination.

And Gerwig says the rates aren’t just low for COVID vaccines.

“All of our immunization rates in Ashland County are lower than we would like them to be,” Gerwig said, “COVID and every immunization across the board.”

Gerwig says there are a few reasons for the hesitancy about vaccines, particularly the COVID shot.

For one, Ashland County is a conservative area and the COVID vaccine is politically polarized.

“Some people don’t like vaccines, don’t want them, don’t believe in them and that’s their prerogative,” she said. “Absolutely.”

Second, Ashland County is home to more than 1,000 Amish residents.

“With the Amish population, they don’t typically go to the doctor for preventative care,” said Community Health Educator Jill Hartson. Most members of that group haven’t sought out the vaccine.

But there’s a sliver of the unvaccinated population in Ashland County that the Health Department hopes it can reach with the mobile clinic — the people who want the COVID vaccine, but don’t have the transportation to get it.

U.S. Census data shows about 7% of households in the area don’t own a vehicle.

“This way, if access is an issue, we are hoping to eliminate that barrier,” Gerwig said.

 A black soap dispenser hangs on a wall beside a beige container for used needles.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Ashland County's mobile clinic will offer the COVID vaccine, as well as a number of other childhood shots and immunizations.

The latest COVID guidance

Three years since the pandemic began, Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health, says breaking those barriers is still worthwhile.

“The reality is that COVID is still claiming a significant number of lives and it is still causing a significant number of hospitalizations,” he said. “As we head into the fall, we really don't know exactly what we will be seeing from the virus. So, there really couldn't be a better time for people to get themselves prepared to face whatever COVID-19 has to throw at us.”

Dr. Vanderhoff says multiple recent studies confirm that hybrid immunity — that’s having immunity from a prior COVID infection and a vaccine — is the most protective.

He recommends people get the updated booster which was released last fall. Only 16 percent of Ohio’s population has.

A second dose of that has recently been made available to people 65 and older and those who are immunocompromised.

It’s these vaccines and others, Dr. Vanderhoff says, that protect us against new outbreaks — whether of COVID or the measles.

“Without vaccination, we all remain vulnerable to a whole variety of illnesses that most of us think of nowadays as part of the past,” he said.

Back in the present, Gerwig is getting ready to roll out the mobile clinic.

It’ll offer the updated COVID vaccines, but also a host of other preventive health services that Gerwig says are just as important, from blood pressure checks to finger stick tests.

With nearly a dozen events on the calendar, the mobile unit’s summer schedule is packed with appearances at churches, farmers markets and back-to-school events.

It remains to be seen if the van will be packed too.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.