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A Lack Of Health Information Has Made This Washington County A COVID Hot Spot

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In southeast Washington state, Walla Walla County has among the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 in the country and low vaccination rates. From member station KUOW, Eilis O'Neill reports that a lack of health information is contributing to the problem.

EILIS O'NEILL, BYLINE: The Colville Street Patisserie in downtown Walla Walla serves up coffee and pastries.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'd like a blueberry almond Danish, please.

O'NEILL: The owner and head baker is David Christensen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That'll be $4.08 for you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.

O'NEILL: He says getting people to mask up before coming in has been a struggle, and he lost some regular customers over it. He says he tried to blame the government.

DAVID CHRISTENSEN: It was easy for us to say something like that - these are the rules; we have to follow them. But we didn't have those guidelines from our county.

O'NEILL: As the CDC and the state keep changing their masking recommendations, Christensen has turned to his county public health department for guidance.

CHRISTENSEN: They were saying that you're kind of on your own; do what you think is best and figure out - basically, just referring us back to what the CDC and the state said.

O'NEILL: The person he asked about masks was Dr. Daniel Kaminsky. He's been the county's public health officer since December 2020. Kaminsky's been hesitant to take a position on masks or on vaccines.

DANIEL KAMINSKY: I'm not a PR man. I don't have a degree in communications.

O'NEILL: Kaminsky worked for years in obstetrics and gynecology, but he told the local paper he got tired of delivering babies at all hours, and he couldn't make it on gynecology alone in a community as small as Walla Walla. So he was looking for another job and landed the public health officer position right at the start of the vaccine rollout.

KAMINSKY: People have their belief systems, and sometimes I sit around, like, what was one thing that I would say that would change their mind? And I'm not convinced that I have that ability and power to do that.

DEVON GREYSON: We can't give up on them. We have to keep working to reach them.

O'NEILL: Devon Greyson is a professor of public health communication at the University of British Columbia. They say public health officials should coordinate communication, give needed and accurate information to people who are already trusted and already in a position to communicate about vaccines.

GREYSON: Working with, like, insiders for cultural communities who don't necessarily trust the government or don't necessarily trust medicine to help convey information to that community.

O'NEILL: Greyson says convincing people to get vaccinated is a matter of building trust, answering questions and finding out what it would take for each individual to make that decision.

CLAUDIA REYES: I have nothing against the vaccine.

O'NEILL: One person in Walla Walla who says she could be persuaded to get a shot is Claudia Reyes. She's the manager of a popular Mexican restaurant her family owns.

REYES: I think about getting the vaccine, but I just feel like I want to wait a little bit longer.

O'NEILL: In mid-July, one of Reyes' sons needed his appendix taken out, but the hospital didn't have any beds available because so many were taken by COVID patients.

REYES: It's scary when you go to the hospital and they tell you they don't have any beds.

O'NEILL: Reyes was surprised. She hadn't known there was a COVID surge in Walla Walla. She started to worry about her husband who's missing a kidney.

REYES: I'm like, oh, my gosh, do you want to go get your shot? He was like, yes. I'm like, can you go right now? Go. So he went.

O'NEILL: But for herself, Reyes still wants more information, things like how frequently people who've had the vaccine get or transmit COVID. Those are questions public health normally answers, but not ones the county's current public health officer wants to talk about. The way Dr. Daniel Kaminsky sees it...

KAMINSKY: When this pandemic is over, which will - eventually will be over, I want people to trust public health, and I want people to come to public health. I don't want them to hate public health.

O'NEILL: Long-term trust is the goal, according to experts in public health communication, but they say answering people's nuanced questions is the way to earn it.

For NPR News, Eilis O'Neill in Walla Walla, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.