In January, Don Showalter, of Broadway, and his wife waited for hours as part of a line on U.S. 340 that stretched into the horizon.
They didn’t sit in traffic for hours as the result of a car crash, but instead were waiting for their turn to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We were just happy to be able to get the Moderna vaccination,” he said.
For Showalter, getting the vaccine reminded him of another vaccine he received, though it was in the previous century.
“When I started the first grade of school, which was many years ago, I couldn’t start until I had the smallpox vaccination,” the north Rockingham County octogenarian said. “We all had a little mark on our arm. It wasn’t if you want to do it, it was if you want to go to school, you do it. Of course, our social environment has changed.”
Sentara RMH Medical Center staff Monday pleaded with the Harrisonburg and Rockingham community to get vaccinated as nearly a third of its current inpatient population — 61 people — are there being treated for COVID-19.
The vast majority of those patients are unvaccinated, according to RMH staff.
Though vaccine uptake is ticking up slightly, the situation in the area remains dire, according to Laura Lee Wight, a spokesperson for the Central Shenandoah Health District.
“It really is one shot at a time,” Wight said. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
She said those who do not get vaccinated pose a risk to others, such as those few who are hospitalized and vaccinated at Sentara RMH. The vaccines do reduce hospitalizations and deaths in those who contract the virus, but the fewer people who are vaccinated, the more likely the virus is able to find someone who is susceptible. And even the added protection of their own vaccine may not stop them from getting sick.
As well, when Harrisonburg and Rockingham County residents are testing positive for COVID-19, they are not communicating with those they came in contact with, allowing the virus to spread to people who may not even know they could be sick, according to Wight.
It takes up to 14 days for symptoms of the virus to appear and it is most dangerous for the elderly and those with high blood pressure, diabetes, anemia, obesity and coronary heart disease, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Wight said the health district knew it would be a challenge informing, convincing and helping people get vaccinated after the wave of those who wanted to get vaccinated had ebbed.
Roughly four out of five employees at the Rockingham County Fire and Rescue Department are vaccinated, according to Chief Jeremy Holloway.
“I do believe people should be vaccinated, but I also believe it’s a free choice,” Holloway said.
“We really encourage vaccinations. I encourage vaccinations and we feel it is a good thing to do,” he said.
City Manager Eric Campbell directed questions to spokesperson Michael Parks and Paul Helmuth, city emergency coordinator.
In a previous interview, Helmuth said the city is in constant contact with Sentara RMH and the health district and there are several different types of people who still have not gotten the vaccine.
One group is those who believe the response to the virus, such as lockdowns and the vaccine itself, are an overreaction and will not be vaccinated because of a political stance, while another group is hesitant because of general distrust of the government that is beyond politics and based on historical errors by the government and medical professionals, Helmuth said.
A third group, he said, is misinformed and getting them accurate information in a digestible way is key.
“You can probably change their minds fairly easily on the science, but you have to be able to meet them culturally,” he said in the August interview.
The fourth group, according to Helmuth, is made up of people who have not been able to arrange a time or transportation to get a vaccine, or misunderstand how to get it or that it is free, or other issues around access.
He said Monday, estimates for the city’s vaccination rate is higher than it appears. The city’s vaccination rate for adults is 51.1%, according to VDH data.
However, Helmuth explained that an unknown number of the roughly 91% of vaccinated James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University students put their address as their home outside of Harrisonburg and Rockingham. Thus, though they are counted in the local total population, their vaccine status is counted in another locality.
Low vaccination rates are impacting younger students in the local school systems, according to Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed.
“This is what really just frustrates me — we know that our kids 12 and under right now cannot get the vaccine and we also know there are children getting COVID, so if we can’t do it for ourselves, I would think we would be responsible enough as adults to get it for children,” Reed said.
She said more people should be vaccinated so the pandemic can be put in the rear-view mirror.
“I think we just hit a brick wall,” Reed said. “Personally, I’m frustrated. I don’t know what else people need to see or hear to understand that getting vaccinated is our only way right now to fight the virus.”
Stephen King, Rockingham County administrator, was similarly at a loss.
“I don’t know, from a county perspective, we necessarily can do anything more,” King said. “But we definitely encourage those who can to get vaccinated.”
Wight said the health district continues to work with community partners, employers and others to try and get accurate information into people’s hands so they can make their own educated decision about whether to get the vaccine.
For example, she said the health district will provide vaccine clinics for employers and will also send people out to speak with workers and other staff to give them information about vaccines.
Like the Showalters, fellow Rockingham County couple Bill Smith and his wife, had to travel outside the county for the vaccine they had been looking forward to since first realizing how dangerous COVID-19 could be to them.
“I would’ve done it sooner, had we been able to,” Smith said. “We looked at it like an insurance policy.”
The vaccine is free to get.
He said he thinks people should be vaccinated, “but I cannot decide for them.”
However, Showalter said he disagrees with such a hands-off approach, drawing on how as a first-grader, he had to get the smallpox vaccine. By 1980, the harmful sickness was pummeled into extinction through mass vaccination across the world.
“I think it’s a danger to society to not have everybody vaccinated,” Showalter said.