CORRY — Helen Willis is among the nearly 55% of southeastern Erie County residents who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 nearly two years after the vaccines became available.
The retired nurse from Columbus Township listed several reasons why she hasn’t been vaccinated, including the deaths of her two sisters in 2021.
“They both got vaccinated in May and they both died in October,” said Willis, 74. “My one sister didn’t have pneumonia when she got the shot, two weeks later she got pneumonia and never got out of the hospital. The other got a fast-growing brain tumor.”
Though none of the COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to cause pneumonia or brain tumors, Willis said she believes there was a link.
Instead of getting vaccinated, Willis takes a weekly dose of ivermectin, the anti-parasite drug that some people use, hoping to cure or prevent COVID-19 — though no study has shown it is effective, the Food & Drug Administration reported.
“I also take vitamin C and vitamin D,” Willis said. “I think I got COVID in the winter of 2019-20 and haven’t had it since.”
Erie County reached a significant COVID-19 vaccination milestone in early October as 60% of all county residents are now fully vaccinated, meaning they have received — at a minimum — their primary series of shots.
A closer look at vaccination rates
Data from the Erie County Department of Health shows that those rates vary significantly throughout the county, from a high of 74.4% in Mill Village (ZIP code 16427) to a low of 40.4% in a section of Erie’s east side (ZIP code 16503).
But a majority of the lowest vaccination rates are found in rural Erie County, particularly the westernmost portions of Erie County and the entire southeastern part of the county. For example:
- Springfield Township (16411) — 40.9%
- Albion (16401) — 42.8%
- Corry (16407) — 44.3%
- Union City (16438) — 45.4%
“The most frustrating aspect of this is that we had an opportunity to nail this baby when the vaccine first came out,” said Jim Caputo, LECOM Health’s vaccine coordinator. “The vaccine was such a good match to the original virus. It saved lives and kept people out of the hospital.”
Demand for vaccine plummeted dramatically in the county during spring 2021, from a high of more than 17,000 doses given the week of March 8 to fewer than 4,000 doses given the week of June 14.
It wasn’t because every eligible county resident had received their shots. Less than 50% of the eligible population was fully vaccinated at that point, according to Erie County Department of Health data.
“What we saw was a lack of enthusiasm, especially in some parts of the county,” said Howard Nadworny, M.D., a Saint Vincent Hospital infectious diseases specialist and county health department adviser. “It’s political in some ways and a lack of access to health care in others. Preventative medicine is not a priority for a lot of people who are not wealthy and are working hard.”
More:Which COVID-19 bivalent booster should I get, and when? What you need to know.
Along party lines
Erie health systems and community centers have worked to improve vaccine access in those areas, especially Erie’s east side and certain rural locations. COVID-19 and flu vaccine clinics have been held frequently in those areas over the past two years.
As for politics, most — but not all — of the ZIP codes with the county’s lowest vaccination rates are in areas where the Republican Party has a majority of voter registrations. Recent studies have shown that Republican-leaning counties have lower COVID-19 vaccination rates than Democratic-leaning ones and a higher death rate due to the illness.
“We see patients with what I call ‘negative knowledge,’ a group of beliefs about the vaccine that are myths, or that something happened to Aunt Sally, or something they saw on TV,” Caputo said. “These are untruths to overcome that can be difficult. You can have a one-on-one conversation, but that’s impossible for all 85,000 unvaccinated people in Erie County.”
Understanding vaccine’s value
Dr. Vincent Proy, a primary-care physician who has seen patients in the Corry area for 13 years, said patients continue to come to the Saint Vincent Medical Group of Corry for COVID-19 vaccines, especially now that the new bivalent booster is available.
Most of them are at least 50 years old and have received their primary doses and earlier boosters. When he does see a patient who is hesitant to get vaccinated, he starts a discussion.
“One of their biggest concerns is they feel the vaccine hasn’t been studied long enough,” Proy said. “I use myself as an example and tell them I am vaccinated and handled it just fine. I quote them statistics about the vaccine and COVID, and how the vaccine not only protects them from illness but others as well.”
But Proy and other health providers are working under a bit of a time crunch, with the weather getting colder and more people gathering indoors, where COVID-19 spreads more easily.
More:Coughing, congestion and sore throats: Do Erie residents have COVID-19, RSV or the flu?
The concern is that the county has seen COVID-19 surges in each of the past two autumns and another one could be on the way, as case counts are climbing in Great Britain.
“Right now the good news is that the BA.5 variant is still predominant in our area,” said Dr. Christopher Clark, Saint Vicent president. “The new booster covers that well. It’s a weapon in our battle against this disease and people need to take advantage of it.”
Christine Dahl, who volunteers with Willis giving out winter clothing at Relevant Church in Corry, has received four COVID-19 vaccines. She’s not concerned about any impending surge in COVID-19 cases. In fact, she doesn’t think about COVID-19 often at all.
“The only time it comes into my mind is like it did (Friday) morning when I went to the hospital for blood work,” Dahl said. “I had to make a second trip to get my face mask.”
More:20 months later: Erie-area doctor returns to work after COVID-19, double-lung transplant
COVID-19 remains on the mind of Domenica Macerata, an 84-year-old Erie woman who visited the LECOM Center for Health & Aging on Oct. 7 for her fifth COVID-19 shot.
Macerata, who makes sure to take her cousin, Anthony Letizio, for each vaccination, said it’s probably the main reason she has never had COVID-19.
“It’s up to each person whether or not they get the vaccine, but they should be conscious of their health and giving COVID to others,” Macerata said. “I still wear my mask when I go out. There are still others who haven’t gotten their vaccines like I have.”
Contact David Bruce at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ETNBruce.