HOLMES COUNTY, Ohio — Rural Holmes County is a hot spot for tourists in Northeast Ohio. People come to the area to experience Amish culture. But, the county has the lowest vaccination rate in the state.
Less than a quarter of the population has gotten the COVID-19 vaccine. The county is unique.
"About 50% of our population is Amish," said county health director Michael Derr.
He understands the challenges to get people vaccinated in a rural, religious population. So far, the number is low.
"The last I checked, I think it was like 13.65%," he said about the percentage of the population with the virus vaccine. And that number may look alarming from the outside but, "to see something brand new like this come out and to get rates of 13% and 14% is really, really good."
To compare, more than 40% of Ohioans started their vaccine process since the shots were made available in late December 2020.
"It's a wait-and-see attitude," said Mark Louden, an Amish expert and professor of religion at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.
Louden said what people know about the Amish population isn't always correct.
"In the same way that they have no religiously based prohibitions on accessing medical care, there's no religiously based prohibitions that pertain to vaccines," he said. "So concept of a vaccine is not something that is viewed as inherently negative."
Both men said trust in the vaccines will come from educating the population through religious leaders in the communities and motivating factors like when family members get vaccinated.
"There are Amish people that have been vaccinated," Louden said. Exact vaccination numbers for the Amish population aren't available because that demographic information and religious affiliation aren't asked for during the process.
Even if there are people who want the vaccine, Derr said one barrier is access.
"I mean, I don't even have doctor's offices in all my villages," he said. Derr also wants to see the vaccines come in forms other than the multi-dose vials. For Derr, single-dose shots - like the flu shots - would work better to serve his population.
Between access issues and widespread hesitancy, Derr keeps his vaccination goals small.
"We're hoping for 15 (percent)," Derr said about his next vaccination milestone.
But, 15% of the county is less than 7,000 people which means most of the population in the tourism districts will be unvaccinated during the busy summer months.
"I just assumed that might be a roadblock," said Tiffany Gerber the Director of the county's chamber of commerce and tourism. "So I was just I was surprised that people don't ask."
Instead, Gerber said she hasn't taken any calls about the low vaccination rate.
"We see a little bit of activity on our social media, people just asking general questions about do I need to bring my mask? Do I not? But the vaccination question has just plain not come up."
The hospitality industry in the area sees the trickle-down. The White Oak Inn in neighboring Knox County sees consistent business even with lower occupancy rates.
"People won't generally admit it when you ask them the purpose of their trip. But for most people, it's shopping," said owner Yvonne Martin. Martin, and her husband Ian, run the inn about 25 minutes from Millersburg.
She said the guests like the level of transparency some of the shops show to customers.
"I think people have already made their decision," she said. "They either feel safe, or they don't. And those Amish businesses that won't be vaccinated won't wear masks or putting signs up. So, people have a choice. And that's I think what makes them feel safe is they can choose."
With Gov. Mike DeWine's decision to end the health orders, the tourism industry in the county is pivoting toward fully reopening with the vaccinations or not.
"I've already seen two emails this morning from local business associations or merchants' associations saying, OK, tell us your strategy so we can share them," Gerber said. "I think everyone's just kind of scrambling and getting the plan together."