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Rita Watson had chosen not to be vaccinated against COVID-19. She was worried about what was in the shots and if they were safe.

But when her 41-year-old daughter contracted the virus and fell seriously ill, Watson reconsidered. She and her four sons went to the Robeson County Health Department on Thursday for the shot.

“I decided, seeing my daughter in this hospital, that I was bringing myself and my children here,” said Watson, 58, of Fairmont.

New cases of COVID have increased in southeastern North Carolina, as across the state and nation, putting additional pressure on hospitals hoping to be on the home stretch of the pandemic.

But health experts say a few factors are convincing some people who were skeptical of the vaccine to eventually get the vaccine: an increase in cases mostly caused by the delta variant, a sharp increase in the percentage of positive COVID tests and the promise of 100 $ state gift cards.

Pam Locklear, a nurse in the Robeson County Health Department, administers the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, August 5, 2021. Photo by Sarah Nagem

In Robeson County, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in North Carolina, 354 people were vaccinated at the health department between Monday morning and mid-afternoon Thursday this week. That compares to fewer than 200 people two weeks ago, according to the ministry.

“People look at the numbers and realize that there is an urgent need,” said Melissa Packer, deputy director of health at Robeson’s health department.

Terri Duncan, director of the health department for neighboring Bladen County, said she had also seen “increased interest” in the vaccine, but not at the time the vaccines first became available. Recently, three generations of a local family received the vaccine, she said.

Across North Carolina, more than 109,000 doses of the vaccine were administered the week of July 26, compared to about 79,000 doses the week of July 5, the data showed.

Even so, hospitals say they are struggling to keep up as more people, many of them young adults, are falling ill. And experts say they still have a long way to go with vaccinations, especially in this rural part of the state where rates are lagging.

Last week, UNC Health Southeastern in Robeson County issued a public appeal: don’t go to the emergency room unless you are very sick, because there is simply no room left. The hospital encouraged people to go to their primary care physician or to an emergency care facility instead.

The number of COVID patients at UNC Health Southeastern has increased over the past month from a low of seven to 33 on Monday, according to James Granger, the hospital’s business development manager.

Hospital admissions have increased in other neighboring counties since July 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: up 500% in Bladen, 146% in Columbus and 59% in Scotland.

“THINK WE KNOW EVERYTHING”

Watson said her daughter, LaShawna Watson-Baker, spent several days in hospital, first in the county of Scotland and then in Chapel Hill.

“I couldn’t do anything but pray to God,” Watson said. “I thought we were going to lose her.”

Miraculously, Watson said, her daughter is now recovering at home. She needs a walker to get around because her muscles are still weak.

On Thursday, Watson asked a nurse administering the vaccine if the vaccine was safe. The nurse responded with insight into potential side effects and urged Watson to do more research.

Ultimately, Watson said she was relieved to do so. But skepticism remains for many in this community.

Only 27% of the population of Robeson County is fully vaccinated against COVID, compared to 47% statewide. The reasons for withdrawing from the vaccine appear to span the spectrum, from religion to politics to history.

“I believe you should have faith in the Lord and not be afraid,” said Karen Ibasco, 51, who was helping at a store in downtown Pembroke this week. “We all have a date of death.”

Ibasco said she did not intend to be vaccinated, but wears a mask in public places.

In Lumberton, 44-year-old barber Stoney Stone said he feared the vaccines would be released too quickly, before they got full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Stone has said he is a supporter of Republican Donald Trump, and he wonders if the pandemic was fabricated by those who disapprove of the former president.

“I think the government let it go on all of us,” Stone said. “Was it something to make (Trump) look bad or hurt the economy?

But Stone said he plans to get the COVID shot at an open house for his son’s school. He wants to protect his family and he predicts that states will take inspiration from New York City and require proof of vaccination for certain activities.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced last week that the immunization status of all state employees would be checked. Those who are not vaccinated must wear a mask and undergo a weekly COVID test.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has also encouraged private sector companies to verify the status of every worker.

But Stone said a lot of people don’t appreciate the government telling them what to do.

“We’re a group of Southerners who think they know it all,” he joked.

Frank Evans, 72, was blunt: “I think a lot of it is a bunch of crap.”

Evans said he received the vaccine “to save my own life” and to keep others safe.

But, he said, “It was after I did my own research, not because the government told me.”

Geoffrey Townsend, 41, received his first dose of COVID vaccine at the Robeson County Health Department on Thursday, influenced by the increase in cases and the threat from his mother that she would not make him a home cooked meal until ‘he leaves.

Townsend, who is black, said he was afraid of the vaccine. He cited the Tuskegee experience in which the government studied, under false pretenses, the effects of syphilis on hundreds of black men between the 1930s and the 1970s.

“It’s a question we talk about a lot,” Townsend said.

His uncle died of COVID and then a former classmate, he said. It was then that his mother really urged him to get the vaccine.

But Townsend said he’s worried what his friends might say about his decision.

“When they know I got the shot, they will attack me,” he said. “I might not tell them I got it.”

“THE DATA AND THE SCIENCE ARE CLEAR”

More than 4,300 new cases of COVID were reported in North Carolina on Thursday, a dramatic jump from 375 a month earlier. As of midweek, 10.4% of COVID tests in the state came back positive, according to DHHS. Health officials say the target is 5% or less.

At a press briefing on July 29, Cooper said the spike in cases “is caused by the unvaccinated.”

“The data and science clearly show that getting the COVID vaccine dramatically reduces the risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death,” he said. “These vaccines are safe and effective, and they are the key to ending this pandemic. “

Of the 30 COVID patients isolated at UNC Health Southeastern on July 30, 27 were unvaccinated, the hospital said.

The county of Scotland had 93 active cases of COVID on Monday, mainly involving people who were not vaccinated, said Kathie Cox, director of health for the country’s health department. Twelve were among school-aged children and 19 among people fully vaccinated against COVID, she said.

Those who have been fully vaccinated are “recovered,” she said.

The Delta variant is “deadly, and it’s very scary,” Cox said. Infections caused by the variant are more contagious and could lead to more serious illness in those infected, according to the CDC.

Cox said the County of Scotland is “slowly but surely” seeing an increase in vaccines given, and the health department is encouraging everyone to practice the three W’s: wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance social.

“People really need to be concerned about who is most at risk of catching and spreading COVID-19,” Cox said.

Health officials say they hope for a larger increase in vaccinations, as some counties are offering $ 100 gift cards to those who receive their first dose and $ 25 gift cards to those who drive someone to get them. vaccinate.

As of Thursday, 54 people were due to receive a $ 100 gift card at the Robeson County Department of Health around 1 p.m., officials said. 16 others were to receive a $ 25 card.

“I think it works,” Packer said of the financial incentives.

For Watson, the fear of losing his daughter was too much to bear. “Getting the vaccine is the best thing for people to do right now,” she said.


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