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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Rep. Keith Kempenich was among the thousands of North Dakotans who never took the coronavirus seriously, skipping face coverings and blowing off the vaccine as an unnecessary hassle.
But the longtime Republican lawmaker and rancher from the state’s highly conservative southwest corner is now a believer after being infected with the virus, which he said nearly killed him in the waning days of the legislative session this spring.
“I’ve changed my tune,” he said. “You’re not going to beat this on your own.”
The North Dakota Health Department is looking for testimonials from former virus skeptics like Kempenich as part of a planned public education campaign to boost the state’s dismal vaccination rate. Kempenich, who could barely breathe while being emergency airlifted from his home in Bowman to a Bismarck hospital, says he’s willing to share his story.
“I’ve never been so sick, so weak or wore out,” the 61-year-old Bowman rancher said. “I basically lost three weeks of my life.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only 55.4% of North Dakotans 18 and older have been vaccinated, ranking North Dakota 34th among states.
State Immunization Director Molly Howell said only one of North Dakota’s 53 counties — Dickey — has reached the immediate goal of a 70% vaccination rate. Nelson County is second at about 65%.
The pace of the state’s vaccination drive has slowed to about a 1% increase or less weekly, which Howell called concerning.
There are many reasons some North Dakotans are choosing not to get the shot, but access to vaccination sites and vaccine supply aren’t among them, as the state has more doses than people willing to get them.
Pushing holdouts into getting their shots is difficult due to vaccine hesitancy and a lack of trust in government, Howell said.
While some states have offered cash incentives or vaccine lotteries to get people to roll up their sleeves, North Dakota’s Constitution does not allow such giveaways. Instead, the state has relied on a campaign to dispel a wide variety of misinformation about vaccines, such as one claim that it can lead to infertility.
The new campaign, which will be launched in a few weeks, will focus largely on vaccine skeptics-turned-disciples to try to reach resistant residents, Howell said.
Anti-maskers and people who have recovered from the coronavirus are among the most difficult to persuade. That’s where people like Kempenich come in.
The lawmaker, who wears cowboy boots with a mandatory suit and tie during the session, has been a member of the House since 1993 and represents the state’s largest legislative district by area, stretching from near Williston in northwestern North Dakota to the South Dakota border. It’s also among North Dakota’s most conservative areas; vaccination rates largely fall well below the state average.
Kempenich said several of his GOP colleagues who sat by him in the House chambers tested positive for the virus during the session. Despite that, Kempenich never got tested or wore a mask around them.
He said he believed he may have had the virus earlier and felt he was probably safe from getting it again.
“I think I had it and recovered from it,” he said.
GOP Rep. Mike Brandenburg, Kempenich’s friend and nearby seatmate in the chamber, got the vaccination when they were offered at the Capitol during the session. He encouraged Kempenich to do the same.
“I tried to get him to get a shot but he blew it off and said, ‘Nah, you go ahead,'” said Brandenburg, a farmer from Edgeley. “Then he got really sick. He’s a prime example of why you want to get a shot.”
Kempenich missed the last three days of the session in late April because he was being treated at a Bismarck hospital.
“I’m kicking myself,” he said of not getting vaccinated. “Truthfully, once you go through this, it’s not something you want to repeat. There is a remedy and it’s better than going through it.”
This story has been corrected to show Dickey County is the only county to surpass the 70% vaccination rate, not Nelson County.
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