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Rural Vaccination Rates Climb Following Spike In Infections

More rural Americans are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 as cases and deaths from the delta variant continue to surge across the West. Vaccination rates have increased by two-thirds over the past three weeks, according to an analysis of CDC data by the Center for Rural Strategies.

While the nonprofit found that many rural communities' vaccination rates are still lagging behind the national average, some are closing the gap – including Montana’s conservative Flathead Valley. Nearly 600 people there got a shot last week.

“I think people are starting to see that there is some significance to this disease and it is impacting more people with the delta variant,” said Joe Russell, health officer for the Flathead City-County Health Department.

A recent rise in hospitalizations, as well as more young people getting infected, is contributing to the uptick in vaccination rates in Flathead County, where about a third of all intensive care unit beds are currently filled, according to Russell.

“We had a 42-year-old die a couple of days ago,” he said.

Seeing friends, neighbors or loved ones die from COVID-19 does bring the pandemic closer to home. Adam Berry saw that happen all too often in New Mexico's rural McKinley County, where he's the emergency manager.

“A lot of the citizens either had COVID themselves or had loved ones or friends that had COVID. Some of them mild, others were very, very sick,” Berry said. “Unfortunately, we did have a pretty high number of deaths due to COVID.”

The coronavirus has killed 487 people in the county of about 71,000 – which overlaps the Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo – since March 2020. And those deaths motivated a lot of people there to get vaccinated. Now 99.9% of all eligible adults in McKinley County have received at least one shot, according to data from both the CDC and the New Mexico Department of Health.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Nate Hegyi is a reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau based at Yellowstone Public Radio.