HALEYVILLE, Ala. – Tending a thrift store that displays a faded Trump flag in a nearly all-white Alabama county with a long history of going against the grain, Dwight Owensby is among the area's many skeptics of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Owensby, 77, said he doesn't often watch TV news or read the local paper, and he doesn't spend much time talking about the pandemic with others — it's just not a big topic in this rural, heavily forested part of the state. But he suspects the coronavirus pandemic was planned, as a discredited conspiracy theory holds, and he said there's no way he's getting any shot.
“If it’s your time to go, you’re going to go. If it ain’t, it ain’t gonna bother you,” Owensby said.
He isn’t alone in Winston County, which ranks last in terms of people who have been fully vaccinated in a state that has the country's lowest vaccination rate, according to federal statistics. To many here, the pandemic isn’t much of a concern. Businesses are open and relatively few people wear masks, even though Alabama’s rule requiring them to be worn in public wasn't scheduled to end until Friday.
A Union stronghold where some pushed for secession from pro-slavery Alabama during the Civil War, Winston County is a prime example of a problem that health officials say they’ll have to overcome to end the pandemic: Many white conservatives such as Owensby aren’t lining up quickly enough for vaccines.
The 25% of Americans who say they probably or definitely won’t get vaccinated tend to be Republican, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, and then-President Donald Trump carried 90% of the vote last year in Winston County, which was his highest margin in Alabama. The county’s population of roughly 23,700 is 96% white, and many work in small manufacturing plants.
More than 2,700 people have contracted COVID-19 in Winston County, putting it in the middle of the pack statewide, and 71 have died of the disease. Yet only 7.3% of the county’s residents, or about 1,730 people, had been fully vaccinated as of Thursday. That’s about one-third of the percentage in Alabama’s leading vaccination counties, which tend to be heavily Black and vote Democratic.
As Winston County's sheriff and the publisher of the local newspaper, the Northwest Alabamian, which has covered the pandemic and vaccination effort closely, Horace Moore has a unique perspective. Whereas he and many of the paper's workers have gotten shots, Moore doesn't know of a single colleague on the sheriff's office's 33-person staff who has gotten one.
“I wish they’d get it, but I’m the only one,” he said.
Moore is baffled by the reluctance, which a poll commissioned by the state health agency in March showed isn’t unique to Winston County, which is about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of Birmingham. It found that about half Alabama’s residents were either somewhat or very unwilling to be vaccinated.
Skepticism cut across racial and ethnic lines in the poll, but a pattern is obvious: Both large and small, urban and rural, the counties with the state’s lowest immunization rates all have mostly white populations, and Trump carried all but one by wide margins in November. By contrast, counties with the highest vaccination rates are more likely to have large Black populations that favored Democratic President Joe Biden.
The differences may reflect the politicization of the pandemic since its outset, with Trump repeatedly downplaying the virus' threat, at least early on, and Republican-led states pushing more aggressively to lift mask orders and restrictions meant to slow its spread.
While state-funded public outreach and National Guard-run vaccine clinics have helped boost immunizations in mostly Black areas of Alabama, officials are trying to figure out how to increase them among rural white people who think shots are more dangerous than COVID-19, which has killed more than half a million Americans.
“I would say we are struggling a little bit with how to develop a message to reach that group. It’s not clear what the most effective strategy would be to reach them,” said Dr. Scott Harris, head of the Alabama Department of Public Health.
In Winston County — known as the “Free State of Winston” for its anti-Confederate tendencies during the Civil War — some say vaccine supply is more of a problem than vaccine reluctance. Lakeland Community Hospital in Haleyville said it has immunized more than 2,000 people and is awaiting additional doses.
“Our only hurdle so far has been vaccine availability,” CEO Ashley Poole said in an email. Down the street from the hospital, a worker at a Walmart store was vaccinating people as quickly as she could on Monday, the first day Alabama expanded eligibility to everyone age 16 or older.
Doctors at nearby Family Medical Associates often encourage patients to be vaccinated, but demand isn’t universal, said office manager Vijaya Reddy. “Some people want to take it and some do not,” she said.
That description fits Sharon Harris and Kristie Mobley, co-workers at a rural convenience store.
Harris already has had both her shots, and she wasn't nervous about getting either. “I was glad to,” she said.
Mobley is among the leery, however. Her fiancé has gotten a shot, she’s helped others find vaccination appointments, and she knows people who had to go on ventilators after contracting COVID-19, but Mobley is waiting. She wants to see whether others suffer long-term side effects from vaccines, which officials say are extremely unlikely.
“I’m just going to wait and make sure you don’t grow a third eyeball or something,” she said.
Associated Press writer Kim Chandler in Montgomery contributed to this report.