Small businesses have a crucial role to play in ensuring COVID-19 vaccines get into the arms of rural Americans, who have been less eager than their urban and suburban counterparts to get the shots, panelists said at a virtual summit Thursday.

“Having partnerships with local business is definitely a must,” said Kinston, N.C., Mayor Don Hardy at the Health Action Alliance Rural Business Summit. “They want to help and they want to make sure they’re safe as well.” Getting their employees vaccinated “benefits not just them and the company but the community as a whole.”

Speakers included Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, and Land O’Lakes vice president of rural services Tina May, who spoke about what USDA, AFBF and Land O’Lakes respectively have been doing to speed administration of vaccines.

Figures analyzed by The Daily Yonder (DY) show that the vaccination gap between rural and urban/suburban residents has been widening. Near the end of April, that gap was only 2.5 percentage points. Now, according to DY, about 31% of rural residents are completely vaccinated, 8 percentage points below residents of metropolitan counties.

Nationwide, 63% of Americans have received at least one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor shows that 24% of rural residents say they will “definitely” not get the shot, a much higher percentage than urban residents (7%) or suburban residents (15%).

While speakers emphasized that getting any of the vaccines is a personal choice, they also said businesses, health care providers, community groups, and government entities need to ramp up educational efforts to ensure the U.S. can reach “herd immunity.”

“It’s important for us to do what we can to educate individuals, to remind them of the responsibility they have to themselves, their family, their community and their country,” Vilsack said.

“It is a choice,” he said, but he stressed that the sooner people get vaccinated, the sooner “we can make sure that our country gets on the other side of COVID.” One “strong data point” he offered to show the safety and efficacy of the vaccines: Ninety percent of doctors have gotten vaccinated.

And Duvall cited his personal experience with COVID-19 in arguing that even if you’re a relatively isolated farmer or rancher, you still should get vaccinated.

Duvall contracted COVID-19 last year during a visit from his son. “Once you have it, you know you want to take that vaccination,” he said.

He said state and county farm bureaus, as well as farmers themselves, have been heavily involved in vaccination efforts, whether through helping to set up mobile or pop-up sites or offering transportation to workers.

Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said businesses need to communicate with employees about their needs. Noting the decline in recent years in the number of rural hospitals, Morgan said many people are simply unable to take a break from work and walk down to the hospital for their shot.

“That’s where the business owners come in,” by asking employees whether they need transportation and some time off to take the shot and if need be, to recover from its effects.

Land O’Lakes’ May said the cooperative is hosting on-site clinics at its locations and giving employees time off to get the shot.

“We’re continuing to gain momentum” on vaccines, she said, without disclosing percentages. “The numbers are looking good.”

Morgan mentioned four groups crucial to the success of vaccination efforts in small towns: healthcare professionals, faith leaders, and ag and business leaders. “If you get those four groups working together, you can accomplish anything in that town,” he said.

Sherri Powell, founder and executive director of the Rural America Chamber of Commerce, took note of the out-sized role small businesses have in their communities. Despite in many cases being sole proprietorships, Powell said many companies have large presences on social media, which can be influential.

Vilsack touched on the ways USDA is helping in the effort, mentioning the nearly 1,600 department employees who have volunteered in some fashion in the vaccination effort, contributing to the administration of 2 million doses.

In addition, this summer USDA will be distributing grants to states from a pot of $500 million in the American Rescue Plan designated for rural healthcare providers.

The National Rural Health Association has released a vaccine toolkit for rural community and public health leaders, which is available online.

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