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Amish shun vaccines

Rural areas show low inoculation rates

AP A group of Amish prepares a horse team to work on a farm in Pulaski, Pa., on June 23. The vaccination drive is lagging far behind in many Amish communities across the U.S. after a wave of virus outbreaks that swept through their churches and homes during the past year.

MESOPOTAMIA — At a COVID-19 vaccination clinic lasting from about 8:30 a.m. to noon Friday at the Mesopotamia Ox Roast, Kris Wilster, director for environmental health at the Trumbull County Combined Health District, only saw one person get vaccinated.

“There were a lot of people there, though,” Wilster said of the ox roast, a favorite event for Mesopotamia and Middlefield locals, including a substantial Amish population — the second-largest in the state and the fourth-largest in the nation.

The vaccination drive is lagging far behind in many Amish communities across the U.S. following a wave of virus outbreaks that swept through their churches and homes during the past year. Though COVID-19 vaccine data doesn’t reflect religion, data shows that there are low vaccination rates in those rural areas where Amish live.

While about 44 percent of the total population of Trumbull County has started the vaccination process, and about 52 percent of neighboring Geauga County, recent statistics from the Trumbull County Combined Health District show that just 18.46 percent of the population of ZIP code 44062, which covers Middlefield and part of Mesopotamia, has been vaccinated. That’s about 2,660 out of 14,400 people.

In West Farmington ZIP code area 44491, where the county health district has gone four times trying to distribute vaccines, just over 24 percent of the population is vaccinated.

Other ZIP codes that cover parts of Mesopotamia — 44076, 44439 and 44450 — show that between 22 and 27 percent of the population has been vaccinated.

Statewide, the vaccination rate is closer to 48 percent, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Wilster said the combined health district will be heading back to Mesopotamia for another vaccination clinic from 5 to 8 p.m. July 28 at the Mesopotamia Fire Hall. He said having done clinics for a while in both rural and populated areas, they tend to be “hit or miss.”

“We can only do what we can do,” Wilster said. “We just keep offering and we try to make it convenient for everybody.”

THE AMISH

While their religious beliefs don’t forbid them to get vaccines, the Amish are generally less likely to be vaccinated for preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough. Though vaccine acceptance varies by church district, the Amish often rely on family tradition and advice from church leaders, and a core part of their Christian faith is accepting God’s will in times of illness or death.

Experts say the low vaccination rates are a reflection of both the nature of the Amish and the general vaccine hesitancy found in many rural parts of the country.

Because many Amish work and shop alongside their neighbors and hire them as drivers, they hear the skepticism, the worries about side effects and the misinformation surrounding the vaccine from the “English,” or non-Amish, world around them even though they shun most modern conveniences.

“They’re not getting that from the media. They’re not watching TV or reading it on the internet. They’re getting it from their English neighbors,” said Donald Kraybill, a leading expert on the Amish. “In many ways, they are simply reflecting rural America and the same attitudes.”

In one case, an anti-vaccine group took out a full-page newspaper ad showing a smashed buggy with the words “Vaccines can have unintended consequences.”

Public health officials trying to combat the confusion and hesitancy have put up billboards where the Amish travel by horse and buggy, sent letters to bishops and offered to take the vaccines into their homes and workplaces, all without much success.

“It’s not due to lack of effort,” said Michael Derr, the health commissioner in Holmes County, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Amish. “But this thing is so politically charged.”

Trevor Thain, who owns Topeka Pharmacy in northern Indiana, where there are 25,000 Amish, put out flyers offering private appointments or doses dispensed inside homes. Only a few Amish people responded, Thain said, including one who came with a request: “Don’t tell my family.”

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