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Americans who remember the polio vaccine rollout are eager for COVID boosters


The overall COVID vaccination rate is lower in rural parts of America than it is in cities by about 10%. But one demographic in rural America is vaccinated at much higher rates - seniors. And they're eager for the booster shots that are rolling out right now.

NPR's Kirk Siegler is in Baker City, Ore., with more.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: For 87-year-old Marge Loennig, this pandemic has stirred up vivid memories of a close childhood friend who was stricken with polio and was on an iron lung ventilator.

MARGE LOENNIG: Her arms and her lower body were all in the lung - was very frightening for her and very frightening for us.

SIEGLER: But back then, everyone seemed to know someone with the disease. Loennig says people eagerly lined up for the vaccine. Well, she feels like COVID is being downplayed still, so people don't fear it like they did polio.

LOENNIG: If the health departments and all had been open about sharing who has COVID, who doesn't, who's sick, I think some of the anti-vaccine people would not have been so reluctant to get shots.

SIEGLER: There is plenty of vaccine reluctance, if not outright defiance, in Loennig's hometown of Baker City, the historic first stop on the old Oregon Trail, in the heart of the state's deeply rural and conservative east. Though sitting on an antique chair in her living room, the wall above her adorned with paintings and her granddaughter's art, Loennig says today her town is deeply divided, and COVID is political. It's the opposite of what she remembers as a little girl forced into actual quarantine for months from polio and scarlet fever.

LOENNIG: They did not have this anger that just seems to overwhelm. And somehow, we have to get at the root of that anger if we are going to face, and we will face, future episodes of this kind.

SIEGLER: For now, Baker City seniors, like Loennig, are kind of on an island - still moving cautiously, avoiding the unvaccinated as much as they can. Only about 45% of the 16,000 people in this county have gotten both shots. But among the 70-and-up, it's 25 points higher.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to Baker Senior Center.

SIEGLER: Over at the senior center, a cold rain is pounding down outside, steaming up the windows. Danae Simonski, who's 84, is sipping tea after the daily lunch service.

DANAE SIMONSKI: Well, I'm not playing bridge anymore (laughter).

SIEGLER: She left her group when she learned some of the players weren't vaccinated. Simonski says misinformation is swirling around Baker City.

SIMONSKI: 'Cause I heard someone say they're not getting it 'cause it has formaldehyde and antifreeze in it (laughter). I heard someone say that. I mean, people can believe what they want to believe. But then they have to learn to pay the consequences. That's how I feel.

SIEGLER: A few tables over, a 73-year-old who introduces himself as Bob Brown, who's unvaccinated, doesn't sound too worried, even though he says his immunocompromised wife is still suffering from long COVID.

BOB BROWN: There's almost nothing could convince me.

SIEGLER: Brown's wearing a MAGA hat that looks like it's had some miles. He says Democratic politicians used to mock the so-called Trump vaccine and Operation Warp Speed.

BROWN: And now they're saying, oh, you're evil if you don't take it. And I don't trust them.

SIEGLER: He also compares this current moment to polio, albeit through a far different lens.

BROWN: You know, when you got the shot when you were a kid for polio, we took the shot. Well, that was a true block. It actually worked. This thing here that they're giving you, I don't think is.

SIEGLER: The COVID vaccines being used in the U.S. range from 71% to 93% effective. Still, nationally, polls have shown hard-line conservatives tend to be less vaccinated. Baker County, Ore., voted 74% for Donald Trump. And public health officials here told me they're not sure what more they can do to convince the holdouts to get shots.

At Sweet Wife Baking downtown, Mary Miller, a retired nurse who still has her polio vaccination card from 1964, says she recently gave up talking to her neighbors about the COVID vaccine.

MARY MILLER: I have really had to work on this not causing me to lose my faith in people.

SIEGLER: At 64, she's eager to get the booster when she's eligible. So is fellow cafe regular Randolf Tracy. He's a 72-year-old Marine veteran. He sees this as a very different time than polio, when the country had gone through a depression and World War II.

RANDOLF TRACY: You were living kind of carrying on for the person next to you. It wasn't necessarily about God and country and patriotism. It was you didn't want to let the guy standing next to you down.

SIEGLER: Back then, he says, there was more unity and a collective sense of helping your neighbor.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Baker City, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.