COVID-19 vaccinations lag in rural areas

A recent report indicated that 10,460,797 people in Florida had received at least one vaccine dose.
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By Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida

COVID-19 vaccination rates lag in vast swaths of rural Florida compared to the rest of the state — a pattern that also has been seen in other areas of the country, a new report shows.

The report, released last Friday by the state Department of Health, said 55 percent of people in Florida ages 12 and older had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

But in 23 of the state’s 67 counties — almost all rural and largely spread across North Florida — the rates were below 40 percent. The rates in nine counties were below 30 percent, including 24 percent in Holmes County, 27 percent in Baker County, 27 percent in Hamilton County and 27 percent in Union County.

On the other end of the spectrum, the vaccination rate was 67 percent in Central Florida’s Sumter County, home to much of the massive Villages retirement community, and was 66 percent in Miami-Dade County, the state’s most-populous county, the report shows.

The report said 10,460,797 people in Florida had received at least one vaccine dose as of last Thursday and that 8,659,077 people were considered fully vaccinated — meaning they had received the required two doses of vaccines produced by drug makers Pfizer or Moderna or the one-dose vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson. It listed an overall population of 19,119,043 people ages 12 and older.

The report, which did not provide percentages of fully vaccinated people by county, reflected a pattern of lagging rural vaccination highlighted last month by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Disparities in COVID-19 vaccination access and coverage between urban and rural communities can hinder progress toward ending the pandemic,” the CDC said in a May 21 report. “Public health practitioners should collaborate with health care providers, pharmacies, employers, faith leaders and other community partners to identify and address barriers to COVID-19 vaccination in rural areas.”

The CDC report pointed to issues such as rural residents having to travel farther for vaccinations and cited vaccine “hesitancy” in rural areas that is a “major barrier that public health practitioners, health care providers, and local partners need to address to achieve vaccination equity.” 

It also said many rural residents face particular health risks from COVID-19.

“Rural communities often have a higher proportion of residents who lack health insurance, live with co-morbidities or disabilities, are (65 or older) and have limited access to health care facilities with intensive care capabilities, which places these residents at increased risk for COVID-19–associated morbidity and mortality,” the CDC report said.

Of the 23 counties in Florida that had vaccination rates below 40 percent last week, all but two — Bay and Clay counties — have overall populations below 75,000, the Department of Health report said. Also, all but two — Hardee and Okeechobee — were in North Florida.