AS vaccine data rolls in for the backblocks of rural Southland, Jo Sanford says she is concerned.
The Tuatapere Medical Centre practice manager is entrusted with trying to get as much of her community vaccinated as possible, but numbers remain low for much of rural Southland.
A lot of people had already made up their mind, she said, and despite her practice going the extra mile by calling patients, many would not be moved.
Her concerns are pieces of a familiar mosaic: there is a growing divide between vaccination rates in urban and rural areas. And in Southland, a district which sprawls out into some of the most remote sections of New Zealand, the theme holds true.
“People are going to care when it hits them. God help us, we don’t want that to happen [but] I think that’s the only way,” she said.
In Tuatapere, where figures come under the umbrella of Longwood Forest, almost 30% of the population remains unvaccinated.
Only 46% have received a second dose, placing the town in the bottom 13% nationally for that statistic.
Up the road in coal mining towns Ohai and Nightcaps, the numbers are even worse.
With a combined population of about 1500, one-third of the population remains unvaccinated, and uptake of 42% for the second dose places them in the bottom 7% nationally.
Ohai has also been without a medical centre for 10 weeks because of upgrades, but it was set to reopen today.
Ms Sanford said the low numbers there were a “huge concern”, and getting younger people vaccinated had been a struggle.
The lowest group of vaccinated individuals was the 20-29 age bracket, compared with 89% of over-70s now vaccinated.
“I don’t know that reality has hit. OK, we had Covid down here… a long time ago now. It’s all been pretty much Auckland.
“The general population, not just younger people, I think, are over it. Over listening to the news. It’s the same all the time.”
She wanted people to get the vaccine, but acknowledged it was an individual choice, and people were within their rights to refuse it if they did not feel comfortable.
She hoped Southlanders could realise getting vaccinated was not just about them, it was also about protecting others.
“It’s a rapid, deadly virus. We need to get people to realise that,” she said, “or think about the elderly in their community, the vulnerable, the young people that can’t get it.
“By us all being vaccinated, it protects a wide group of vulnerable people.”
Ohai resident Joanne McKenzie got her first dose last Wednesday after months of deliberation and embodied the hesitancy of her town.
Working in the education sector, she was not opposed to the vaccine, but said she had some concerns about the speed at which it was produced.
She said a major driver in ultimately getting it was her daughter’s impending wedding which she feared she would not be allowed to attend without the vaccine.
Her hand was forced, she said, and she was worried about where things were headed.
“I just feel like if you stay unvaccinated, you’re going to be segregated from everyone else. Vaccinated on that side, and unvaccinated on the other.”
A couple of streets over, Bridgette Simpson held a different view.
She believed there was a strong feeling of anti-establishment in the town.
The thought of extra pressure being put on the health system at the expense of patients who needed urgent attention made her angry.
“This is science, it’s got nothing to do with politics. It’s got nothing to do with anything else. My mother had polio and had to learn to walk again.”
Tracey Wright-Tawha (Kati Mamoe, Te Ati Awa, Ngai Tahu) was on a mission to vaccinate as much of the rural population as possible, and said she was surprised to hear the statistics in Ohai were so low.
As chief executive of Nga Kete Matauranga Pounamu Charitable Trust, Ms Wright-Tawha was heading up vaccine drives in areas where accessibility was limited, including Ohai.
Across five separate dates between August 10 and September 9, her organisation administered 644 vaccines in the small town.
“What we’re becoming aware of is there’s been a bit of a dip, so we’re changing our strategy.
“We’re looking at the potential to get out into rural communities and offer day clinics via mobile means, rather than being reliant on finding a venue.”
People in Nightcaps provided a range of views, with one person who did not want to be named saying locals had an aversion to wearing masks when they came into her shop.
Peter Bayley, who once lived on Ponsonby Rd, Auckland, said he had received both doses of the vaccine and believed most of the community around his age were in the same boat.
Otautau-based Rodney Heenan works in Nightcaps and believed most of his colleagues had been vaccinated.
He has not had his first dose, but said he was not opposed, just put off by some of the “stigma” around it.
In the town he hailed from – Otautau – numbers were also low, but residents spoken to could not figure out why.
Thirty percent of the local population remained unvaccinated, with just 44% having had their second dose, placing them in the bottom 9% nationally for that category.
Wayne Hebberd has lived in the small town for nine years and took his first dose after having a “good talk about it” with his doctor.
“I didn’t even know I’d had it! The lady was rolling up my sleeve and I was chatting to her and then she said,
“I didn’t feel anything, you know.”
Neighbour Gretchen Wilson was astounded the numbers were low because everyone she knew in the town had been vaccinated, including herself.
“I still haven’t grown two heads or gone magnetic,” she said with a laugh.
Vaccine uptake in southern metropolitan areas was considerably higher than their rural counterparts.
In Dunedin Central, 92.5% of the population have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
In Invercargill, 81.6% have received their first dose.
Anyone over the age of 12 was eligible to get a free Covid-19 vaccination, with 32 vaccination services operating across Southland.