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caption: Ray's Pharmacy on Orcas Island is one of the places that will be administering the new Covid-19 vaccines
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Ray's Pharmacy on Orcas Island is one of the places that will be administering the new Covid-19 vaccines
Credit: Kevin Lee

Don’t call Orcas Islanders vaccine 'hesitant.' More like, vaccine procrastinators

There are no public opinion polls that show how many people on Orcas Island plan to get a Covid-19 vaccine when they finally get the chance.

But the public schools on Orcas have exceptionally low vaccine compliance rates. Ninety-three percent of 6th grade students were out of compliance during the 2018-2019 school year, which means as far as the school knows, very few kids were fully vaccinated.

The low compliance rates are a concern for Ellen Wilcox who heads the Covid-19 vaccine rollout for San Juan County’s health department. But she doesn’t think people here are as resistant to vaccines as the school data suggests.

That's the case outside of Ray’s Pharmacy in Eastsound, where most people said they can’t wait to get the Covid-19 vaccine, which offers the hope of a return to normal life.

“I would take it without hesitation,” said Sarah McCulloch.

Others expressed concerns about getting vaccinated, like Ann Garfield who admits she has “shot phobia.”

“I mean, I am glad there’s going to be a vaccine, but I will wait to see what happens,” she said.

Garfield’s "wait and see" attitude is shared by a number of people on Orcas, who told KUOW they aren't in a hurry to get vaccinated, but may well end up getting their shots.

“We probably use the term 'vaccine hesitancy' too often and too broadly,” Wilcox said. A more helpful phrase in some cases might be 'vaccine procrastination.'"

Wilcox points to an experiment the health department did on San Juan Island, which resulted in a dramatic turnaround in one school where 38 families were not up-to-date with their vaccines.

“We really expected that most of those families would just turn in an exemption form,” she said. Ultimately, only two families did not vaccinate.

According to Wilcox, county health did two things differently. First, they just made it easier for people to get their kids vaccinated. In many cases, it was as simple as arranging a convenient time for kids to get shots.

Second, county health answered people’s questions, which in nearly every case reflected curiosity, or at most healthy skepticism, about vaccines.

“We did individual phone calls for those who were wondering whether it was a safe vaccine for their child, depending on what the vaccine was,” Wilcox said.

As the Covid-19 vaccine rolls out, Wilcox said the county is mostly focused on logistics, which are complicated. But she's also planning on conversations over Zoom with health care workers and pharmacists to make sure people on the front lines are armed with the facts.

With that approach, Wilcox expects most people in San Juan County will get vaccinated. In her experience, few people cannot be convinced.

That's not say everyone here will get vaccinated. You can still read anti-vaxxer sentiment on local Facebook groups, for example, with links to disinformation about vaccines. But those kinds of posts are infrequent.

Outside Ray’s Pharmacy, Sonya Lippman is quick to say she’ll get the shot, and she thinks most of her neighbors on Orcas will end up getting it too, including those who are reluctant to vaccinate.

“There's a lot of people who do alternative medicines" Lippman said. "But I haven't heard anyone, 'There's no way I'm taking it.' I think that they will. I think they want to see some of the outcomes.”

Experts estimate around 70% of all people will need to be vaccinated for us to reach herd immunity, which helps protect people who can't get vaccinated for medical reasons.

And at least for now, demand is high, the vaccines are scarce, and the first doses are going to health care workers. That means for most people there will be plenty of time to gather more information about the new vaccines in the months to come.