Just as the supply of COVID-19 vaccine has increased in Kern County, demand appears to be tapering off even though Kern has a relatively low local vaccination rate.

As a result, local leaders are urging county residents age 16 and over to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

"The quicker we get our population vaccinated, the sooner we get back to that normalcy we’re looking for," said Brynn Carrigan, Kern County's public health director.

Citing low vaccination rates, Gov. Gavin Newsom late last month committed to increasing vaccine doses for Kern and also expanded eligibility to county residents ahead of the state's timeline. An uptick in vaccinations followed but signs now indicate the low-hanging fruit may have been picked.

After a successful start, the vaccination hub at Cal State Bakersfield has seen interest decline significantly in recent days.

Appointments at the Kern County Fairgrounds filled up within hours several weeks ago but that has also slowed down.

And there are same-day appointments available in the MyTurn scheduling system, indicating there is more vaccine than willing takers. The logical conclusion is that a large portion of the population is reluctant to get the shot.

"When you have open appointments and all this capacity and vaccine sitting in the freezers and no one taking advantage of it, there’s kind of no other conclusion to come to," said David Womack, senior vice president for Kaiser Permanente in Kern County.

As of Wednesday, 250,000 out of 688,000 eligible people in Kern have been fully or partially vaccinated, or 36 percent of the eligible population. That's significantly below the statewide rate of 48 percent.

Groups resistant to getting vaccinated typically include people of color, who distrust health care and government institutions based on past racism or fears because of their immigration status. But recent studies link vaccine resistance to a distrust in science, and people's political and religious leanings.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study published in March, 45 percent of white evangelical Christians said in February they would not get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Local officials say efforts are now being made by local vaccine providers to reach people other than expecting them to show up at a vaccine clinic. 

Kern county Public Health is deploying a mobile vaccination clinic to local high schools starting next week to target teens and their families. Carrigan said with high school resuming in-person classes and sports, it makes sense to target this group.

She also said once a week she and her team review vaccination rates by ZIP code and make adjustments accordingly for where to host information booths and conduct door-to-door canvassing.

A more convenient drive-thru option opened Wednesday at the Kern County Fairgrounds vaccine clinic. Door-to-door canvassing and mobile vaccine clinics are also being deployed to communities with low vaccine rates. 

The most recent data shows the cities of Taft and Marciopa, as well as the eastern Kern communities of Ridgecrest, California City and Rosamond, have some of the lowest vaccination rates. The Bakersfield ZIP codes of 93305 and 93307 — which represent about 120,000 people — rank in the middle of the pack. The highest vaccination rates are in northwest, southwest and downtown Bakersfield, the ZIP codes 93311, 93314, 93312 and 93301.

Bakersfield City Councilman Eric Arias said he confronted some of the hesitation when he knocked on doors last week in southeast Bakersfield to urge people to attend a vaccination clinic in the neighborhood on Sunday. 

"I was actually quite surprised at the number of folks who had some hesitation or reluctance to get it. It was quite shocking to see how widespread it was right here in our community," Arias said.

He said one resident referenced the Tuskegee experiment in explaining the decision not to get vaccinated.

State data shows that Latinos, who make up 55 percent of Kern's population, have received the most doses of vaccine, 36 percent. Whites, who make up 33 percent of the county population, have received 29 percent of vaccine doses.

Kern Medical's Chief Medical Officer Glenn Goldis earlier this week talked to KGET-17 about some reasons given by viewers, who took a poll, for not getting the vaccine. Lack of full FDA approval was one reason, Goldis said. Another viewer expressed skepticism about how fast the shots were distributed and wondered if the vaccines were fully tested.

Goldis said it would have taken years for the vaccines to go through standard FDA approval and they were fast-tracked because of the urgency of the pandemic. All the data so far shows they are safe. He also said the technology behind the vaccines has actually been in development for years.

Another survey respondent simply wrote: "No, no and hell no."

"It’s fear," Goldis said, "just fear of what it will do to you."

Goldis said reluctance combined with other factors that have long plagued Kern, such as lack of access to health care, educational disparities and the vastness of the county, could make it particularly challenging to achieve widespread vaccination. He believes it will be necessary to take vaccine to people rather than just relying on them to seek it out on their own.

"I don’t know when they’ll have a vaccine station in Starbucks," Goldis said, "but that would be great."