In Nevada’s far-flung rural counties, known for having more cows than people, livestock are routinely inoculated against a legion of diseases. But COVID-19 vaccinations have gotten a chillier reception from rural residents, many of whom hesitate to get the shots or stand fast against what they see as government overreach or unproven technology.
“Every rancher understands herd immunity,” said Anna Fallini, who with her husband, Ty Berg, operates the Twin Springs Ranch in Nye County, 60 miles east of Tonopah. “I don’t know why that doesn’t seem to resonate and be more applied to the human population. We do three separate (bovine) injections against 13 different viruses and bacteria It’s interesting that a lot of people vaccinate their cows, their horses and their pets, but not themselves.”
Fallini and Berg are helping to get the facts about COVID-19 inoculations to their neighbors in Nye County so that they can make informed decisions about whether to get the shots or not. They are more like teachers than preachers when it comes to changing minds.
Making a free choice
“The decision (about getting the vaccine) is a free choice; we’re not trying to force it on anybody,” Fallini said. “What I find is a lot of people withhold from the vaccine because they don’t understand the statistics and the science. When I come across someone who is open minded and willing to listen, I like to have a conversation about the risk analysis – about the risks of the vaccines and the safety of them. If I get an opportunity, I like to get into how safe these vaccines have proven to be.”
Berg said some unvaccinated folks may have their minds made up and will stick with their decision not to get the inoculations “We’re big advocates of ‘it is your choice,’” he said “We completely understand that and we don’t want to pressure anybody into doing anything, but (people) also need to understand that your choice is going to affect everyone else. But it is your choice to make and you shouldn’t feel bad about making it (either way).”
Vaccination data show that the Silver State’s rural enclaves lag far behind Nevada’s urban areas for COVID-19 inoculations. Fewer than one in three residents of Nye County have received their first COVID-19 shot, about the same rate as most of the state’s other rural counties. As of May 28, about half of Washoe County residents have gotten their first shots; 40% of eligible Clark County residents have received their first jab of the needle, according to state data.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that people living in rural areas of the U.S. are among the most vaccine-hesitant in the country. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll, released in April, found that more than one in five rural residents say they will “definitely not” get the COVID-19 vaccine. In the nation’s cities and suburbs, fewer than 13% of those polled have said they won’t get the vaccine.
What the polls say
Politics also play a role, according to the surveys. An NPR/Marist poll from March found that more than one in three Republican voters said they will refuse the vaccine. That’s also a factor in Nevada, in the so-called cow counties, where GOP-leaning voters often are in the majority. In Elko County, as of May 28, just 25% of the county’s 53,000 residents had been inoculated. In Storey County, a conservative bastion, just 15% of the county’s 4,100 residents have gotten jabbed.
Many peoples’ worries about the vaccine aren’t related to politics, though.
While the concerns about the vaccine for those living in rural areas are similar to urban and suburban areas, there are a variety of other attitudes towards the pandemic overall that may help explain why a larger share of rural residents say they will ‘definitely not’ get vaccinated. About six in ten rural residents… say getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is a personal choice. Rural residents are also less likely to say they are worried about themselves or their family members getting sick from coronavirus.” — Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
Fallini said COVID-19 wasn’t as visible to people living outside the state’s population centers.
“Because of the nature of where we live, the virus didn’t directly affect a lot of the people here,” she said. “The threat wasn’t like in the urban areas, where people knew people who got it or died from it or are suffering from its long-term effects.”
That wasn’t the case for FalIini and Berg, who knew Gonzalo Lopez, 54, a soccer coach at Truckee Meadows Community College who died of COVID-19 complications in April 2020. Lopez, she said, was her cousin’s husband and a “dear family friend… he was one of the first Nevada deaths. From the beginning we were well aware of the potential danger of the virus.”
Riding the range
The Fallini family’s Twin Springs ranch, including its grazing allotment, stretches across 1,000 square miles about 60 miles east of Tonopah. The operation is nearly the size of the state of Rhode Island and about ten times the size of Las Vegas. The ranch was founded by Giovanni Fallini, an Italian immigrant who settled in Nye County in 1864. Four years later, he was ranching near the Reveille Range outside Rachel.
Five generations later, the family usually runs about 2,000 head of cattle at Twin Springs. During the last week of May, family members and hired hands are rounding up, vaccinating and branding about 1,000 calves, 400 fewer than in a year not plagued by drought. It’s a job that requires weeks of hard work starting before dawn and ending at sundown, but Fellini and Berg took some time out from the range to talk with a reporter about the value of vaccines.
Although they are convinced that getting the shots is the right move, they don’t proselytize or engage in debate with their neighbors.
“We want people to make the decision, an educated decision, for themselves,” Fallini said. “We want to make sure people have the information available, so when they make that decision it’s not based on misinformation or conspiracy theories or lack of knowledge.”
She noted that even some doctors and health workers had been hesitant to get a vaccine that was developed so quickly.
New vaccine, old technology
“There is a lot of trepidation about the mRNA vaccines and the fast approval,” Fallini said. “Some people wanted more studies done… (The DNA aspect of the vaccines) sounds scary.”
The technology at the core of the mRNA vaccines is decades old, she said, and, as millions have been vaccinated the number of serious cases of side effects has been miniscule. Although the choice of getting the shots is a personal decision, she said, it’s also one that affects the whole community.
“It’s not just me that I protect with the vaccine, but also the people that I love, and people who are at higher risk of getting COVID or those for whom the vaccine wasn’t effective. I don’t want to be someone who gives the virus to somebody, even when that possibility may be only 5 percent… You see what is happening in India, Bahrain and Ceylon; people are still getting the virus. It’s ebbing here because of the precautions we took and the vaccinations. But the pandemic isn’t over yet and I think that’s lost on people in the U.S.” – Anna Fallini, Nye County.
When the inoculations come up in conversation, the couple is always willing to talk about the facts. Early this year, Immunize Nevada, a group that supports vaccinations, asked Fallini to help get the word out when the COVID-19 shots became available in Nye County.
“I did some outreach when the opportunity came around for essential agricultural workers to get the vaccines in Nye County,” she said. “I called everybody I knew and offered it without any pressure.”
About half (30 people), got the shots and about half declined, she said. “I try to have general conversations with people,” Fallini said. “I don’t want to tell them what to do. I wouldn’t want someone trying to force something on me, especially when it comes to my own body. But if someone approaches me with questions, I love to sit down and discuss it. If somebody’s open minded and wants to have that conversation, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing to do that.”
Fallini and Berg said the best they can do is help people know the facts about the vaccines. If they are set against getting them, they respect that decision.
“A lot of people in the rural areas won’t get it no matter what,” Berg said. “They just feel like it’s overreach. They don’t trust it, so they aren’t going to get it. That’s fine as well. It’s their decision. We try to get people to understand that it’s not just them, that it’s everyone who is affected.
“But if they don’t want to get it, that’s 100 percent their choice.”