Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of stories on COVID-19’s current impact in Southwest Virginia. The delta variant has produced case rates double those in the state as a whole, with even more disproportionate death rates. News Channel 11 spent a day in Wise County and spoke to half a dozen people — from an ICU nurse to a small business owner, an elected attorney to a respiratory therapist.
WISE COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) – Allie Phillips noticed something quickly when she began her public heath work here a few months ago — Southwest Virginia is filled with people who would give you the shirt off their back.
“They were very welcoming when I came. They’re very community and family-oriented down here, and that’s great to see — they do want to protect each other,” said Phillips, who is population health manager for the Lenowisco and Cumberland Plateau health districts.
But Phillips noticed something else. A staunch believer in the effectiveness of the COVID vaccines, she’s also charged in her job with getting shots into arms in a region where just over 42% of people are fully vaccinated.
That’s far below the state rate of nearly 61% and signals one area of disconnect between the desire to protect one’s neighbors and people’s actions.
“We have nurses out there who are ready, we have health educators from the district there to give out information, to answer any questions,” Phillips told News Channel 11 of vaccination promotions.
“We’re there, we’re waiting and we’re ready, so it can be a bit frustrating when people just walk by or they’re not happy to see us.”
Wise County native Bobby Bloomer is a Big Stone Gap small business owner and a town council member whose mother died of COVID-19 on Christmas Eve. He said that protectiveness is fierce.
“A lot of people in the area will wear a gun in Walmart to protect you from a robber,” Bloomer said.
But for some reason, it’s different with the COVID vaccine.
“But they won’t get a vaccine to protect the community from the virus and it’s just it’s a hard pill to swallow.”
“It’s been tough. I mean, it has hurt our community — a lot of divide. A lot of people don’t believe in the science, but I do.”
‘The fighting 9th’
One possible cause for the divide is a fiercely independent streak that’s earned the region’s Congressional District the nickname “the fighting ninth.”
“We’re hardscrabble,” Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp said. “We want to go our own way and do our own thing – that’s part of the Southwest Virginia culture.”
Far removed from Richmond, the state capital, and generally self-reliant, Southwest Virginians don’t tend to view government mandates kindly.
“Doing it our own way isn’t necessarily ‘the government is telling me to do it,’ Slemp said. “And I think that’s the wrong approach when the government tells Southwest Virginia to do something — and we just do the opposite.”
No shrinking violet himself, Bloomer agrees with Slemp’s assessment and said many of his unvaccinated neighbors appear pretty hardened in their stance at this point.
“What I’ve seen people that haven’t been vaccinated at this point, are most likely not (going to) unless forced to by some kind of mandate by a company or their employer.”
Slemp said he’s philosophically opposed to government mandates. But like Bloomer, he’s vaccinated and wishes the region’s vaccination rate was much higher as he witnesses a delta variant surge that is killing Southwest Virginians at almost three times the rate it’s causing deaths statewide.
“It’s unfortunate because some of those deaths could have been prevented,” Slemp said. “And, that’s a sad reality. We hope and pray that as this pandemic continues and hopefully ends soon, that we can rally together and do what’s right for each other and our neighbors, our family members, our community, and (that) those who have no legitimate medical reason to avoid getting vaccinated, that they would choose to do the right thing and protect their neighbors.”
And like Bloomer, Slemp said he believes the science coming from agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He’s seen people die from it, he’s seen people get very sick and recover, and he’s seen people barely impacted by a brush with the virus.
“I don’t understand it … I’m not a doctor. I don’t pretend to even come close to that, the medical field, and I come apart like a $2 watch when there’s medicine involved.”
“But with that being said, I trust that, and I’ve seen the numbers that say that vaccination has a real impact on preventing death or serious disease or serious complications from the disease. And that’s why I fully support vaccination for those who choose to do it.”
Sitting inside the bicycle shop he runs with Lorenzo Rodriguez on Wood Avenue, Bloomer said he wouldn’t have envisioned the level of vaccine resistance his community is displaying.
He too has seen the impacts, beyond just his mom, who ran a very popular formalwear shop. He has a young, very healthy athletic nephew who only survived COVID after being treated on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine — the absolute last resort for COVID patients.
The young man remains unvaccinated, and Bloomer said as he does with others, he’ll state his opinion but not engage in intense debate. But his opinion is unequivocal.
“Consider your families, I mean, my mother died,” Bloomer said. “We had 50-some deaths here at the local nursing home. Don’t put yourself first, put the community first. It’s not political. We’ve always been vaccinated. Forget about the politics and do what’s right for the community.”
Patience and persistence
Phillips, the public health worker, says progress comes one person at a time. She said she takes heart in a story a colleague has related to her.
“There was this mom who was nearby and they offered her the vaccine and she said ‘absolutely not, I’m not doing that.’ And then, the individual who was working the vaccine pod, they told them about how they have kids at home too.”
The worker said as a fellow single mother, she worried about what would happen to her kids if she got sick with COVID and hospitalized.
“I think being able to relate to that … the other mom, she went away for a little bit, but then she came back because she was like ‘you know what, you’re right, my kids are all I have. If I were to get sick and put in the hospital, nobody would be there to take care of them.'”
Phillips said witnessing the low uptake is “not a good feeling,” but she said she and her colleagues have a little of the Fighting 9th in them, too.
“You can’t shame them at the day,” she said of efforts to win people over to getting vaccinated. “All you can do is go out there and educate. Again, make them feel comfortable just promote the vaccines, and hopefully, just try and increase that rate.”
But as Southwest Virginia’s COVID case rates remain more than double those of the state and the gap in deaths persists and widens, Phillips said perseverance from her teammates is a must.
“You’re never really prepared for another variant or another surge, but we handle it and we will continue to handle it, and we’re not going to stop fighting it,” Phillips said.
“We’re going to just keep on going and urging for the vaccination, no matter how many times we have to do it. We’re going keep doing it because we care and we want people to be safe and healthy.”