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The Reasons Why The South's Vaccination Rate Lags Behind Other Regions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden is traveling to North Carolina today as part of his administration's vaccination efforts. Southern states have some of the lowest rates in the U.S., especially in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. Here's Shalina Chatlani of the Gulf States Newsroom.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: On a blistering hot day, volunteer Hugo Martinez trudges through a New Orleans neighborhood equipped with red informational fliers.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

HUGO MARTINEZ: Good evening, ma'am. My name is Hugo. I'm a volunteer with Together Louisiana.

CHATLANI: He's part of a nonprofit and community-run campaign called Together Louisiana. Martinez is knocking on doors to encourage vaccinations. He offers a complimentary fish fry dinner to some residents.

MARTINEZ: Have y'all got your shot yet?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No.

MARTINEZ: Do you want me to sign you up for that?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No.

MARTINEZ: Well, if you know...

CHATLANI: And while many in this neighborhood have gotten the vaccine, some still don't trust it, like 45-year-old Daryll Woods. His dad died from COVID, but he says he can't be convinced.

DARYLL WOODS: It's too many other things out here we don't have nothing for, but we have something for this. How they have it so fast?

CHATLANI: While it's true it's the first time a vaccine with this mRNA technology has been authorized, scientists have been studying this for years, which sped up the process for developing the shots. Martinez tries to explain the science to people, but he still hears a lot of conspiracy theories and hesitation.

MARTINEZ: I think it's a pretty scary situation. I think it's important for people to get the vaccine for that reason in order to reduce the potential mutations of this virus.

CHATLANI: Health officials are worried about that, too, particularly the delta variant. That one caused a massive surge of cases and deaths in India and is spreading in the U.S. now. But Louisiana, alongside Mississippi and Alabama, have the lowest vaccination rates in the country at less than 40%, meaning huge swaths of the population are at risk. Louisiana Regional Medical Director Shantel Hebert-​Magee says they've already done a lot. They even announced a million-dollar lottery last week.

SHANTEL HEBERT-​MAGEE: We have had a number of hyperlocal events, so we've expanded to shopping malls. Working with the National Guard, we have sent our team to several businesses.

CHATLANI: Some of these things are what the Biden administration suggested just this month. She says it's not fair to compare the region to other parts of the country.

HEBERT-​MAGEE: I don't want us to victim blame and say, why aren't these people getting vaccinated yet?

CHATLANI: The South is more rural with an underfunded public health system, a lack of safety net health care providers and cultural trust issues with the medical system born out of historical examples of racism in health care. She says, in the South, vaccinations will have to be slow and steady.

HEBERT-​MAGEE: I do think they're working, but I think it takes time.

CHATLANI: And that's the concern. The CDC has already warned the delta variant is going to be the dominant strain in the U.S. Alabama State Health Officer Scott Harris is concerned about outbreaks that could start locally and spread nationally.

SCOTT HARRIS: If you have a cluster anywhere, I mean, the whole system breaks down.

CHATLANI: But Harris isn't giving up.

HARRIS: We actually are encouraged by the fact that we do see a way out of it. So we've just got to keep trying.

CHATLANI: One talking point - Harris says hospitalizations have been relatively flat, but that almost all of the new severe cases are among the unvaccinated.

For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF OATMELLO'S "FROST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.