“So have you gotten the vaccine yet?”
The question, a friendly greeting to Betty Smith, the pastor’s wife, lingered in the air as the four church women sat down for their regular Tuesday coffee and conversation at Ingle’s Market.
Mrs. Smith hesitated, sensing a chilly blast of judgment from a never-mask, never-vax companion. She fumbled through a non-reply.
Recalling the moment later, she sighed, “We were there to get to know each other better but the first thing on the table was the Covid vaccine.”
The subject makes her husband, the Rev. David Smith, even more uncomfortable. “Honestly, I wish people wouldn’t ask,” he said, chatting after Wednesday night prayer at Tusculum Baptist Church. “I think it’s none of their business. And it’s just dividing people.”
As the beautiful Appalachian spring unfurls across northeastern Tennessee, the Covid-19 vaccine is tearing apart friends, families, congregations, colleagues. “It’s a muddy mess,” said Meredith Shrader, a physician assistant, who runs an events venue with her husband, another pastor, and who notes that the choice has become about much more than health care. “Which voice do you listen to?”
Communities like Greeneville and its surroundings — rural, overwhelmingly Republican, deeply Christian, 95 percent white — are on the radar of President Biden and American health officials, as efforts to vaccinate most of the U.S. population enters a critical phase. These are the places where polls show resistance to the vaccine is most entrenched. While campaigns aimed at convincing Black and Latino urban communities to set aside their vaccine mistrust have made striking gains, towns like these will also have to be convinced if the country is to achieve widespread immunity.
But a week here in Greene County reveals a more nuanced, layered hesitancy than surveys suggest. People say that politics isn’t the leading driver of their vaccine attitudes. The most common reason for their apprehension is fear — that the vaccine was developed in haste, that long-term side effects are unknown. Their decisions are also entangled in a web of views about bodily autonomy, science and authority, plus a powerful regional, somewhat romanticized self-image: We don’t like outsiders messing in our business. [Continue reading…]