SPRINGFIELD — It’s one of the most diverse counties in Massachusetts, home to struggling cities with large Black and Hispanic populations, and mostly white small towns known for tobacco farming and bucking the state’s liberal wave to vote for Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election.
Hampden County, straddling the Pioneer Valley along the Connecticut border, has another distinction: the lowest vaccination rate in Massachusetts. Just over a third of the county’s residents have been fully inoculated against COVID-19, compared with nearly half of residents statewide.
People of very different backgrounds here offer widely divergent reasons for not getting shots, even as a five-month vaccination push has driven down coronavirus cases in Massachusetts dramatically.
“I’m not a guinea pig,” said Cordelle Simmonds, a 35-year-old Black man who grew up in Springfield’s Hill and McKnight neighborhoods, where distrust of the health care system is common. “This vaccine is an experiment. You hear about how it messes with your reproduction. At this moment, I’m definitely a no.”
Twelve miles away, white Westfield retiree Marie Ryan, who recovered from COVID-19 last year, also said she has no plans to roll up her sleeve. She believes the COVID antibodies she retains from her bout with the virus will protect her from reinfection — and doesn’t believe the federal health officials who urge previously infected people to get inoculated.
“How many times have they flip-flopped?” she asked, referring to President Biden’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci as “Dr. Fraud-ski” for his vaccine advocacy. “I think this [vaccination drive] is a little bit over the top.”
The holdouts, and the rationales they offer for resistance, present a challenge to local leaders who want to close the gap between Hampden County and the rest of the state in the run-up to Memorial Day weekend, when COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted.
Shots are now available at dozens of locations across the county, from small-town pharmacies to regional collaboratives, after a rocky start to the vaccination campaign. The virus hit the Western Massachusetts county hard last year, not only in congregate settings like the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, where 76 veterans died, but also in cities like Springfield and Chicopee and in smaller rural outposts.
But the latest state data are a stark reminder of how far the county has to go: While over 48 percent of Massachusetts residents are fully vaccinated, only 34 percent are immunized in Hampden County — a vexing double-digit shortfall.
By comparison, 46 percent are immunized in neighboring Berkshire County. The rate is 45 percent in Suffolk County, comprising Boston and surrounding communities. Fifty-seven percent have completed the vaccine regimen on Cape Cod, as have 58 percent on Nantucket and 63 percent on Martha’s Vineyard. Nationally, more than 38 percent of all residents have been fully vaccinated, according to federal data.
The slow uptake at Hampden County worries officials focused on immunizing enough people in Massachusetts to contain the virus. Epidemiologists have said it will be almost impossible to entirely vanquish COVID-19 if outbreaks continue in unvaccinated pockets of the population.
“I’ve gone to everyone I know and said we have the vaccine and we do walk-ins,” said Palmer Town Manager Ryan McNutt, who organized a 10-town regional vaccination collaborative. “The really eager people have pretty much been vaccinated. Now we’re dealing with people who may be hesitant or they’re waiting till it’s more convenient.”
Surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation show the share of Americans who have already gotten shots or want them grew substantially in recent months to 65 percent. The share in the “wait and see” camp, meanwhile, shrank to 15 percent as large numbers of people who had been on the fence got shots, often after prodding from people they know.
But a hard core of 19 percent of adults in the most recent survey, published May 6, were still refusing — including 13 percent who said they definitely won’t get injections, and 6 percent who said they will only if required — shares that have held steady in Kaiser surveys over the past four months.
While there’s no data specific to Hampden County, the Kaiser surveys show less enthusiasm for the vaccine nationally among rural residents and people of color, both major demographics here, than for the population as a whole.
These are “the people most entrenched in their views,” said Jen Kates, senior vice president at Kaiser. Persuading them could require more creative strategies, such as enlisting trusted messengers like doctors and clergy or even offering cash and other incentives, she said.
In Hampden County, the vaccine drive began inauspiciously last winter. After lawmakers complained that the state’s first big vaccination centers were located far away, a site opened at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield. But police were called to the site at the February launch because hundreds of older residents, some with walkers, were lined up outdoors in the cold. The state contractor, Curative, blamed a snowstorm and rerouted people so they could wait for shots inside the mall.
Officials in Springfield and some of the county’s small towns say the incident, broadcast on local television news, was a turnoff to vaccine seekers. Many called for COVID-19 shots to be given closer to where people lived, a grass-roots strategy that the Baker administration ultimately embraced.
“There were real access issues in the beginning,” said state Senator Eric Lesser of Longmeadow, one of 14 legislators who sent a letter to the governor in January calling for more vaccine distribution in Hampden County. “The idea they wouldn’t put a major site here from the outset is reflective of a mind-set that our part of the state gets ignored.”
People in the community say the wider vaccine dispersal to schools, churches, and neighborhood centers has drawn more residents in recent weeks, though demand is slowing. They say a number of factors are holding people back, including a toxic brew of fear, misinformation, and conspiracy theories.
Some of the holdouts, especially in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, don’t trust the health care system because they say it has neglected or abused them historically.
“We all learned about the Tuskegee experiment growing up,” said state Representative Bud Williams of Springfield, referring to a notorious US public health study that began in the 1930s. The study recruited hundreds of Black men with syphilis who were told they’d be treated for the venereal disease; instead, researchers gave them placebos and monitored the disease’s deadly progression.
Williams, who doesn’t take annual flu shots, admitted he was uncertain about the COVID-19 vaccine himself before learning more about it and concluding he should set an example.
Vaccine resistance extends into majority white communities, too. Many there say the vaccines weren’t properly tested and were rushed into use, a claim made by anti-vaxxers on the Internet and talk radio. Some who lean conservative politically don’t trust scientists who insist vaccines are safe and effective.
There are parents, even those who’ve gotten shots, who are reluctant to have their children vaccinated, worrying about as yet unseen side effects. And many healthy young adults won’t get injections, thinking they have little risk of serious illness.
“Some of the young people are suspect of the vaccine,” said Pastor Johnny M. Wilson Jr. of Granville Federated Church in the small town of Granville. “There’s a myth that [COVID-19] is an old-people disease.”
Kaiser’s survey shows people ages 18 to 29, sometimes called “young invincibles,” are least likely to be vaccinated or say they plan to be soon. US coronavirus cases have declined in recent weeks, as more older people are vaccinated, but younger people have claimed a larger share of those infected.
Misinformation is a persistent issue. More than half of the public either believes or is unsure about some broadly promulgated myths, including that the vaccines can give people COVID, make then infertile, or change their DNA, the Kaiser survey showed. That group includes 58 percent of Republicans, 56 percent of independents, and 44 percent of Democrats.
In Hampden County, local officials have found that trusted community voices are key to battling the barrage of falsehoods on the Web and on the street.
“I grew up here, everybody knows me,” said Gwendolyn Smith, president of Springfield’s Bay Area Neighborhood Council and a vaccine ambassador who’s knocked on doors urging folks to get injections. Many neighborhood residents have responded, but others “are kind of iffy about taking it,” she said. “Some even say it’s genocide. I say, ‘What are you talking about? I got two shots, and I’m still here.’”
Vaccinators in rural parts of the county are confronting similar myths. “I’ve run into one or two people who say, ‘No, I’m not getting that, the government’s not putting computer chips in my teeth,’” said McNutt, the Palmer town manager.
At the regional vaccine site in Palmer’s shuttered Converse Middle School, people chose to get shots for the most practical of reasons: “I just wanted to get out and about,” said James Hard of Athol, who works in an auto body shop. “If everyone gets it, you don’t have a problem.”
Barre resident James Leger, 37, said he decided to be vaccinated because he was living with his in-laws, who are older and more vulnerable to the virus. “I didn’t want to be the one who brought it into the house,” he said.
But, even at vaccine sites, not everyone embraced vaccination.
Simmonds, the Springfield resident who refuses to be a “guinea pig,” works as a personal care assistant. On a sunny spring morning this month, he escorted his client, Justin White, who he’s known since grade school, down the street to a vaccination clinic run by Curative at the Bay Area Neighborhood Resident Resource Center.
Simmonds is an adamant holdout — he thinks the vaccination campaign is an attempt at “population control” — but his friend White, who was in a car accident and now uses a wheelchair, decided to get the shot.
“I was hesitant,” White said. “It’s something new. I let a couple of people do it first. After a while, I said, ‘It’s time.’”