Wyatt Steach didn’t have much to say as he pressed a bootheel into the rumbling varnish machine inside the cramped workshop of Flat Iron Boot & Shoe Repair and Rory’s Saddlery in Molalla.
Steach, one of hundreds of thousands of Oregonians yet to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, said he was healthy, that the pandemic had been blown out of proportion and that getting a shot against the disease wouldn’t change his life much.
“I don’t really see the use in it,” the 17-year-old said, clamming up as sweat gathered on his forehead.
Steach is far from an outlier in Molalla, where he lives in a ZIP code with the smallest percentage of people vaccinated against COVID-19 compared to any sizable ZIP code in the Portland metro area.
Only about 38% of the 97038 ZIP code’s population of 15,000 has received a shot, state data show. And it’s areas like this that Oregon officials are trying to reach in their last marathon to vaccinate at least 70% of the population.
Though about 5% of the ZIP code’s residents have contracted COVID-19, some believe COVID-19 won’t affect them personally. Others recoil at the thought of putting something unfamiliar into their bodies. And others are tired of the social and government pressure to get vaccinated.
About 45 minutes’ drive south from Portland, past fields of hay bales, aging barns and neat stacks of wood behind lumber mill fences, Molalla and its surroundings are classic rural Oregon.
A six-wheel pickup truck with U.S. and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags rumbles down a residential street. Log trucks filled to capacity shake Main Street at least every 15 minutes. A worker at a drive-in burger joint wearing a tie-dye bandana and an American flag T-shirt delivers $6.75-burger baskets to the cars waiting outside in the heat.
It’s not easy to understand why vaccination efforts haven’t made substantial inroads in this Clackamas County town. Those who are adamantly opposed to the vaccine generally don’t want to talk about it with a reporter, saying they’re afraid of losing their jobs.
Molalla’s mayor declined an interview. Tootie Smith, the county chair who lives in the Molalla area and famously said in November she would celebrate Thanksgiving with family despite Gov. Kate Brown’s request to limit gatherings, was not available for an interview.
But behind the reticence is what some locals say are deep-seated fault-lines.
“There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground,” longtime Molalla barber Harold Hall said as he trimmed a longtime customer’s white hair. “Either they’ve taken it or they’re not going to take it.”
Hall, 81, seemed to be among the few at the shop taking the subject seriously on a recent Tuesday.
A Hobart Oil Company calendar depicting a stagecoach in the western desert hung on a wall, and three baseball caps hung off a hat rack by the door. One of the hats, with the words “Trump 2024” and “The revenge tour” emblazoned on the front, was hung there by someone after a Trump rally.
Most of his customers have been vaccinated because, he said, the “majority in here have been older gentlemen.”
“Be careful there, Harold,” the man sitting in a waiting chair said to rounds of laughter. The man, who refused to give his name, had apparently been so sick with COVID-19 that he wasn’t sure he would survive.
“We were hoping he’d pay for a couple of haircuts ahead of time,” said Lenny Keller, a barber working at the only other chair in the shop.
Hall recently tried to convince a customer who was adamant she wouldn’t get a shot. He reminded her that vaccines against chickenpox, polio and other diseases have saved countless lives.
Hall said he wishes he could have changed her mind but, he said, she was too entrenched in her opinion to budge.
“There’s nothing that’s going to shut this thing down except the vaccine,” Hall said.
And while the reasons for the division surrounding COVID-19 are vivid for some like Hall, others are less aware of the town’s two sides.
“Really?” Mary Aubrey said from behind the bar at “The Spot Again” when told Molalla has among the lowest vaccination rates in Oregon. “That’s weird.”
Nearly everyone who comes into the saloon says they’ve been vaccinated, Aubrey said. She rolled her eyes and laughed listing some of the conspiracy theories she’s heard from those who haven’t gotten shots.
“You know, all the classics,” Aubrey said, including that the vaccine can cause infertility and that the shots are a vehicle for microchips. “I just don’t think the government is organized enough to do something like that.”
A small group of old friends sitting at a table for their weekly Tuesday morning drinks also struggled to understand.
“That’s surprising,” said Wayne “Doc” Tyre, 83, with a 63-year-old tattoo of a dagger and the blacked-out name of an ex-girlfriend on his left forearm. “I have no idea why they don’t.”
Tyre’s friend, a 30-year-veteran of three Clackamas county lumber mills, nursed a Busch Light. Another, a retired truck driver wearing suspenders, a cowboy hat and a hearing aid, asked for another whisky.
All three men were vaccinated. So were most — if not all — of their friends and family. It seemed like a no-brainer, they said.
“It’s not a good choice,” Tyre said of going without the shot. “I would want to live instead of being on a ventilator or dying.”
But for some locals, it’s not about “conspiracy theories,” but a way of life and a way of thinking.
“A lot of people are very logical and think critically about these things,” Wyatt’s mother, Diana Steach, said in a phone interview.
An instructional assistant at the local high school, Steach declined to give her personal opinion on the vaccine, wary of influencing students. But, she said, given the information people in the community have, “they would rather just wait and see.”
Steach isn’t the only one who wants to keep private health matters private.
One of her friends, Ms. Marshall, appeared to resent the seemingly constant pressure to get vaccinated. She asked that her full name not be used because she feared being targeted for her opinions.
“I just think people need to stay out of other people’s health business,” said Marshall, who had breast cancer and is afraid that the COVID-19 vaccine could affect the medicine she takes to keep the cancer in remission.
And by “people,” Marshall meant the government, too.
“I think their job is to protect our rights and let us make the best decisions for ourselves,” Heather said. “I mean that’s what America is about, is freedom.”
Another friend, Heather, said the pressure to get vaccinated triggers a “fight or flight” response because people feel forced to do something they legitimately fear could harm them.
“You’re getting pressure from every direction,” Heather said, including employers, the government and “people around you who seem to think if you didn’t do it, you don’t care about people.”
A Molalla resident in her late 30s, Heather made clear she is “not an anti-vaxxer.” All four of her children have received the standard course of shots for measles, mumps and rubella, she said. But with how little time the COVID-19 vaccine has been out there, it’s too early to be sure it is safe, she said.
“At this point in the game, everyone should be making their own decisions about their lives,” said Heather, asking that her full name not be used to protect her job.
More than 317 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the United States so far, “under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For every million COVID-19 doses given, about two to five people have a serious allergic reaction, the agency said. And 36 out of the 12 million people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine developed potentially life-threatening blood clots.
Back at Flat Iron Boot & Shoe Repair, two middle-aged men in jeans, denim shirts and black denim aprons caked with dried glue sat on either side of the shop’s open doors, one of them smoking a Camel cigarette.
Owner Rory Waddell, 59, said he only got a shot because of his wife. He said she works at a lumber mill and was worried about exposure to truckers who come from all around Oregon and out of state, as well as the many customers who see Waddell every day. She got vaccinated and told him she wouldn’t let him come home unless he did, too.
One of his employees felt no such pressure. Todd Temples said he hadn’t been sick with anything in seven years, which he thinks could be because he eats a lot of spicy food.
Temples, 47, was much more excited to talk about his work than the vaccine. Leather boots, saddles, holsters, bags, scabbards, saddle bags, reins, ranch ropes and billets line the walls on the way to Temples’ worktable, where he had strips of leather that he’ll craft into a holster.
He eagerly scrolled through photos on his iPad showing the many holsters he had repaired or made from scratch in 2021.
“Eh,” Temples said, shrugging his shoulders and spreading his arms in a dismissive gesture when asked about the vaccine.
He’s not the kind of person to do that, he said. He’s got a bad toothache now and won’t take painkillers for it.
“I don’t trust anything that’s manmade,” Temples said. “It’s just too risky.”
Yet he bristles at others’ reaction to his decision.
“They can’t really understand why,” Temples said. “It’s my deal. It’s not theirs.”
Data journalist Mark Friesen contributed to this report.
— Fedor Zarkhin
Credit: Source link