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Many Challenges Arise When People Doubt Pandemic's Threat

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A vaccine is only as successful as the number of people willing to take it, right? The reality is that despite a huge surge of cases in many parts of the country, there are still those who don't believe the coronavirus is a real threat. NPR's Nathan Rott reports on the challenges that presents.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Go into a grocery store in northwest Montana, and the vast majority of the people you see will be wearing masks.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARKING LOT AMBIENCE)

ROTT: But go outside and ask folks, mask-wearers or not, about their thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic and...

MARVIN LOFTIS: (Laughter) The big joke?

ROTT: You think it's a big joke?

LOFTIS: It's just another cold.

ROTT: You'll get a lot of answers like that one from Marvin Loftis. Quick fact-check - so far, COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands more people in the U.S. than the common cold. Or you might hear things like this from Craig Mann.

CRAIG MANN: It's garbage. It's absolute garbage. And there's been plenty of proof behind the whole COVID pandemic, if you will, that links back to communist China. And it's communist Marxism that they're trying to push on this country.

ROTT: Or, most commonly, you'll get responses like this one from shopper Shauna Unger.

SHAUNA UNGER: I don't know. I can't decide if it's a conspiracy or not.

ROTT: The I don't know who to trust so I don't really trust anyone. Lindsay - who doesn't want us to give her last name because she's worried it would affect her job - felt the same way.

LINDSAY: Well, at first I thought it wasn't real, but then I got it.

ROTT: Oh, no.

LINDSAY: So I was released from isolation last week.

ROTT: COVID-19, as Lindsay found out, is indeed real. This county has one of the highest infection rates in the state, part of a bigger surge that's recently propelled Montana and its small population to have one of the highest positivity rates for the virus in the country. Randy Zuckerman is the chair of surgery at Kalispell Regional Hospital.

RANDY ZUCKERMAN: The whole country has fatigue. Everyone is tired of this. The trouble is, it's here; it's not going anywhere quickly.

ROTT: Similar situations are playing out all over the country and in other rural states like North and South Dakota, Nevada and neighboring Idaho.

JOY PRUDEK: It is incredibly frustrating, especially for our frontline staff, that they live in two different realities.

ROTT: Joy Prudek does public relations for St. Luke's, the biggest hospital system in Idaho.

PRUDEK: They are in the hospital and they see people who are sick, and then they walk outside and they go to the store and they have people look at them with disbelief and anger about them wearing a mask.

ROTT: And that animosity has consequences. Health professionals in Twin Falls, Idaho, which has been overwhelmed with COVID patients, have been asking for a mask mandate for weeks. But when the city council met last week to vote on an ordinance, they heard a lot of public comment like this from resident Pam Fornquest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAM FORNQUEST: And now they're telling us the hospitals are overwhelmed here in our community? It's for fear. That's what it's for - just to cause fear. And I don't appreciate that at all. It's a fear tactic.

ROTT: After five hours of public comment, many like that, the city council voted to table the ordinance. No mask requirement. Anita Kissee is also with St. Luke's.

ANITA KISSEE: These conspiracy theorists and these groups that are against this have been so vocal on social media; at some point, that starts to resonate with people and starts to have as big of a voice as the medical community, if not more.

ROTT: Ruth Parker is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., where she's done a lot of research on health literacy - that is, people's ability to understand health information so they can make appropriate decisions. And she's pretty blunt.

RUTH PARKER: The misinformation and disinformation, the multiple sources - all of these things have fed into, really, chaos of content and a really hard time for people on the ground to know, what do I believe? And even more than that, what do I do?

ROTT: She says it's not necessarily a person's fault that they're confused. Messages from public health officials have changed. That's what happens any time the world is trying to learn about a new virus or pathogen. Politics has muddied the waters. And Parker says it's all just really scary right now, so denial and frustration are sort of to be expected. But as a medical professional, she says, what we need are trusted voices giving clear, simple messaging. And all of us can help by elevating those voices, spreading fewer rumors and holding off on the public shaming.

PARKER: I think kindness is undervalued.

ROTT: Hopefully, she says, by doing that, we can all approach the uncertainty of the moment together.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, Kalispell, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.