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Strong start, but hardly a vaccine victory in North Dakota

March 7, 2021 GMT
Corrine Bakken, 93, of West Fargo, becomes the first patient of the state’s largest private hospital, Sanford Health, to receive the COVID-10 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Fargo, N.D. The coronavirus forced Bakken to retire from her job as a special needs paraprofessional and says she wants to be vaccinated to see her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After the shot she said, “Now I can live to be 100.” (AP Photo/Sanford Health)
Corrine Bakken, 93, of West Fargo, becomes the first patient of the state’s largest private hospital, Sanford Health, to receive the COVID-10 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Fargo, N.D. The coronavirus forced Bakken to retire from her job as a special needs paraprofessional and says she wants to be vaccinated to see her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After the shot she said, “Now I can live to be 100.” (AP Photo/Sanford Health)
Corrine Bakken, 93, of West Fargo, becomes the first patient of the state’s largest private hospital, Sanford Health, to receive the COVID-10 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Fargo, N.D. The coronavirus forced Bakken to retire from her job as a special needs paraprofessional and says she wants to be vaccinated to see her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After the shot she said, “Now I can live to be 100.” (AP Photo/Sanford Health)
Corrine Bakken, 93, of West Fargo, becomes the first patient of the state’s largest private hospital, Sanford Health, to receive the COVID-10 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Fargo, N.D. The coronavirus forced Bakken to retire from her job as a special needs paraprofessional and says she wants to be vaccinated to see her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After the shot she said, “Now I can live to be 100.” (AP Photo/Sanford Health)
Corrine Bakken, 93, of West Fargo, becomes the first patient of the state’s largest private hospital, Sanford Health, to receive the COVID-10 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Fargo, N.D. The coronavirus forced Bakken to retire from her job as a special needs paraprofessional and says she wants to be vaccinated to see her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. After the shot she said, “Now I can live to be 100.” (AP Photo/Sanford Health)

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — While older residents and health care workers have kick-started the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in North Dakota, many health officials worry that turning out younger and healthier adults will be a more difficult chore.

The state has started soft-selling via social media and word of mouth, emphasizing the safety of the vaccine and the importance of a strong turnout in thwarting the virus. Molly Howell, the North Dakota Department of Health immunization program director, said the campaign will be ramped up once more vaccine is available and more people become eligible for shots.

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“Because the vaccine is in such short supply it’s difficult to promote it,” Howell told The Associated Press. “We don’t want to create too much demand that people are stressed about getting the vaccine. So it’s a delicate balance of when to start more of a mass media campaign.”

Sherry Adams, executive officer of the Southwestern District Health Unit, said she’s already seeing so-called vaccine hesitancy among her clients in a seven-county area. Some people, she said, feel like the coronavirus has disrupted their lives and the “further they can get away from it the better.”

Howell said the state is focusing its campaign on dispelling a wide variety of misinformation about vaccines, such as one claim that the medicine can lead to infertility. Officials are also trying to take politics out of the equation. Many residents, citing freedom of choice, argued against mask mandates while North Dakota for weeks led the nation in the number of new virus cases per capita.

Howell and other health officials expect anti-maskers and people who have recovered from the coronavirus to be among the most difficult to persuade, Others, Howell said, have different motives for staying away so “you have to address each person’s own reasoning to why they are not getting the vaccine.”

Howell said a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey of North Dakota households showed that 71 percent of residents say they “definitely” or “probably” will get vaccinated. At the same time, a census bureau map shown to state health officials last weekend put North Dakota among the worst in the country for following through on plans to gets shots.

“Just under 50 percent,” Howell said. “It was concerning that North Dakota was one of the lighter colors on the map.”

Dr. Aaron Garman, medical director of Coal County Community Health, which has clinics in Beulah, Center, Hazen and Killdeer, said at the start of vaccinations that he expected about 50 percent of his patients to take the shots. He too cited falsehoods about the medicine.

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“There has been so much misinformation about the vaccine. Just so much resistance, people saying it’s just another way to control me and all these things,” he said. “From my position, I just want people to be healthy. I want people to be well taken-care of and put this pandemic behind us. ”

Coal Country Community Health and many North Dakota clinics, particularly private, also face the problem of getting out information to rural residents. Garman said they have placed ads in weekly papers, posted notices in grocery stores and tried to phone their patients.

Dr. Casmiar Nwaigwe, health officer for the nine-county First District Health Unit in north-central North Dakota, believes that education is the best approach to vaccination and wants to avoid another showdown like the mask issue. He and Howell cringe at the idea of a mandate.

“You won’t hear that word come out of my mouth,” Howell said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently ranks North Dakota fourth in the country per capita in vaccine doses administered. Howell and others hope numbers like that and an increase in safety data will increase momentum for shots, as well as friendly nudges from neighbors, friends and others who have received the vaccine.

Corrine Bakken, 93, was forced to retire from her job as a special needs paraprofessional for the West Fargo School District when the virus forced her to stay home. Although she doesn’t plan to return to work, Bakken was the first Sanford Health patient in Fargo to receive the vaccine and implores others to do the same.

“I have lived through all of the years to see what these vaccines have done for us,” Bakken said. “Why wouldn’t you go for it? When I got my shot I said, ‘Now I can live to be 100.’”