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Alabama Doctors Race To Reach Unvaccinated With Facts And Sensitivity

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

This spring, President Joe Biden set a goal to get 70% of Americans at least partially vaccinated by July 4. Well, that day came and went, and just this week, the United States hit that 70% goal. But as you move throughout the country, those numbers are inconsistent. Here's Dr. William Admire in southern Alabama.

WILLIAM ADMIRE: Right now, as it stands today, only 35% of Alabama's population's vaccinated. That's not good enough. We are - we're half of what we should be vaccinated. The message cannot stop until we get there, or it's going to be a very, very hard winter.

MCCAMMON: Admire is vice president and chief medical officer for Mobile Infirmary and North Baldwin Infirmary in the southwestern corner of Alabama. The state has the lowest full vaccination rate in the country. And Admire says that's a big reason why in recent weeks, local hospitals have been overwhelmed.

ADMIRE: We have a COVID unit that was down to three or four patients six weeks ago. And now we're up to close to 160 inpatient, and we have patients down in the ER boarded waiting for rooms upstairs.

MCCAMMON: Patients are younger and healthier, he says, and almost all of them are unvaccinated. Another challenge is getting employees to take the shot.

ADMIRE: We're paying our employees $100 to be vaccinated. We have approximately a 50% - a little bit over 50% of our 6,000 employees are vaccinated. Of our doctors, we have - 92% are vaccinated.

MCCAMMON: But there's some good news on the vaccine front, says Dr. Daren Scroggie, chief medical informatics officer for Infirmary Health in Mobile, Ala.

DAREN SCROGGIE: In June, we had done 73 first doses in one week. In the week of August 2, we have done 788.

MCCAMMON: That uptick is encouraging, Scroggie says. In recent weeks, the rate of people receiving their first vaccine doses has surged more than 200% in Mobile and Baldwin counties. But with schools starting in-person this month and hospitals full, they are still playing catch up.

SCROGGIE: I don't think it's enough. I think we need people to be more engaged in making an educated decision and getting as many people vaccinated as possible. And even people who are quite educated have misconceptions about what the vaccine does. It's a surprising number of people who are worried that there's a microchip or some sort of tracking device in it. There are other people who worry that it was developed too quickly. And there are other people who just kind of resist something because they're told this is a good idea, you should do it, and they just don't want to be told to do it.

MCCAMMON: Still, Scroggie says, with rampant misinformation and hardened views, there's a portion of the population they will never reach.

SCROGGIE: And that's OK. And I don't want to be like, well, tough, then you're going to get sick and die. But if you want to look at it and say, OK, that's all right, I don't want to argue with you, I don't want to be angry. I don't want this to be a - leave this room and not like doctors anymore because they yelled at you. But it's the people that we can reach that I have seen turn around when I've told them those stories. And I said, you know, it is really important, not just for you but for your neighbor's child and that child's grandmother.

MCCAMMON: Admire says it takes a delicate approach.

ADMIRE: It's your message that you give the tone that you give the message. OK? And you respect the people when you have a debate with them and talk to them and listen to their questions or fears or their thoughts why they're so strongly against it. And you just tell them this is the facts from the health care community, from the physicians and the experts. This is what's highly recommended. It's science.

We did it with smallpox. We wiped out smallpox on the face of the Earth with vaccinations. We do it before our children go to school. We do it for our military. And it has proven to be effective since we started doing vaccinations.

MCCAMMON: Both Scroggie and Admire are hoping that message gets through and that now, with real fear setting in and a blitz of vaccine outreach, they can get shots in arms before it's too late.

(SOUNDBITE OF 311'S "AMBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.