Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, tells Agri-Pulse he’s concerned that rural regions could be hit with a new surge of COVID-19 cases this fall if vaccinations continue to lag due to resistance to getting the shot.

“The places that will get hard hit are the places that didn't get enough vaccinations in arms, and it’s rural communities right now that are a bit behind on that,” Collins said in an interview Friday.

“It’s time to catch up, or the fall could be a time where the cities do great, and the country gets hit really hard, and how heartbreaking that would be.”

The concern is that the virus will continue to mutate and spread via people who haven't been vaccinated or infected previously. People with compromised immune systems, who can't get vaccinated, would be at particular risk of getting seriously ill, Collins said. 

According to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking survey in April, 30% of rural residents say they will either ‘definitely not’ get vaccinated or will only do so if required. Another 38% said they would wait and see. Rural residents also are far less likely than urban or suburban residents to say they are worried about themselves or family members getting the virus.

Roughly 30% of commercial ag producers also don't plan to get vaccinated, according to a monthly survey by Purdue University and the CME Group.

The Biden administration announced new steps this week to increase vaccination rates in rural areas and to meet the president’s goal of administering one shot to 70% of all Americans by July 4.

Some $860 million will go to rural health clinics and hospitals to help them to broaden testing and mitigate the spread of the virus. Another $100 million is going to rural outreach programs and also will be sending vaccines directly to rural clinics, including those in areas with a limited number of other vaccination sites.

Collins, a renowned geneticist and evangelical Christian who was originally appointed to his job by President Barack Obama and then reappointed by President Donald Trump, said he also reached out to evangelical leaders to overcome hesitancy among a population that has been particularly wary of the vaccine — white evangelical men.

“I think the evangelical community has had a little too much of the sort of implication that maybe they're just not paying attention to the facts. They have legitimate questions that need to be answered,” he said.

Some evangelicals also have a sense that if they’ve prayed for protection from the virus then taking the vaccination shows they are doubting God, he said.

“I would turn that around the other way, as a scientist who's also a believer, I think science is one of God's gifts to us. God has given us the opportunity through intelligence and the ability to study nature to find answers that are God-given to prevent people from sickness and death,” he said.

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Collins said he has done interviews with California megachurch pastor Rick Warren as well as Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Collins, who led the government’s Humane Genome Project to map the human genetic code, grew up on a farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The administration also is encouraging churches to host vaccination sites. 

“I love the experience of being out there in the great outdoors but it was hard work, too,” he said. “I understand that people who are the center of the center of our country … are being presented with challenges and decisions to make about COVID-19,” he said.

American Medical Association President Susan Bailey, a Texas allergist and immunologist, told members of the North American Agricultural Journalists last month that rates of vaccine resistance were particularly high in the rural South and West, which she said wasn't surprising given the political polarization around the pandemic. 

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