Guest Column

Thursday, July 15, 2021

To Keep COVID-19 Economy Booming, Rural Vaccinations Key (Tom Still)

By Tom Still, President, Wisconsin Technology Council
It is “Roaring 20s, 2.0” in much of America. Stocks are booming, cash is looking for smart places to invest, businesses are clamoring for workers, and materials and products of all types are slowly returning to the supply chain.
Let’s not mess it up by letting COVID-19 creep back in the picture, especially in parts of unvaccinated rural America.
The latest national data shows that 72% of the people in urban areas across the country have received at least one vaccine shot, compared with 54% in predominantly rural states. Outbreaks tied to the contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus are taking place in parts of Arkansas, Missouri, Florida, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah, states that fall below the U.S. vaccine average – in some cases, by a lot.
Wisconsin rides above the national average by a couple of percentage points, but even that solid performance varies by location within the state, with some rural counties falling well below the line.
And yet, that latest national data shows it is the unvaccinated who are getting sick, going to the hospital and sometimes dying, not those who already have at least one shot in the arm.
There are a lot of reasons why so many people are not getting vaccinated, but supply isn’t one of them. Shots are available almost everywhere people care to look.
The hesitancy is more about people fearing side effects, which are mild or non-existent for all but a tiny minority of COVID vaccine recipients; general opposition to vaccines for medical or religious reasons; false security about the virus not reaching their neck of the woods; and politics.
The political reasons are the oddest in many ways. The Trump administration spent billions on Operation Warp Speed – despite unhelpful messaging surrounding other COVID strategies – and deserves its fair share of credit for bringing the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines to market. Rural America backed Trump more than urban America in the 2020 elections, and it remains a bastion of support in many states on the outbreak list.
For those who trusted Trump enough to vote for him, it only makes sense that they can trust his administration funded, tested and approved one of the medical research and production miracles of the century.
If there is a jittery side to the markets and the general economy, however, it is that COVID-19 is threatening to stage a comeback in parts of the country and around the world.
Those jitters should be of particular concern in rural America, including much of Wisconsin, if it reaches the point where investments are not being made and company expansions or moves don’t take place for fear of another COVID round.
A huge amount of federal and state aid is being poured into rural America in the form of broadband development, infrastructure, education, health care, tourism and more, much of which could lie fallow if people become convinced that COVID variant risks are too high.
People learned during the height of COVID they could work remotely in a lot of places, including in rural or ex-urban locations. They may be less inclined to do so if they believe they are moving from a place where most people are vaccinated to a place where many are not.
Wisconsin has an advantage over many states in that its rural hospital system is strong and generally held up during the peak of the pandemic. Other states are not so fortunate, and intense rural outbreaks could lead to overrun facilities and lack of treatment.
The recovery is under way and could extend to much of rural America unless too many people fail to make the right choice about getting vaccinated. Main Street Wisconsin is an engaging place to work, live and relax for people who are looking to escape some of the trials of urban life. Don’t discourage them by putting up a billboard, “Welcome to the Land of the Unvaccinated.”
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