Representative Keith Kempenich was among the thousands of North Dakotans who never took the coronavirus seriously, skipping face covers and snorting the vaccine as an unnecessary nuisance.
But the longtime Republican lawmaker and farmer of the state’s highly conservative southwestern side is now a believer after he became infected with the virus, which he said nearly killed him in the hot days of this spring’s legislative session.
“I changed my tune,” he said. “You don’t have to beat this alone.”
The North Dakota Department of Health is seeking evidence from former skeptics of viruses such as Kempenich as part of a public education campaign planned to increase the state’s painful vaccination rate. Kempenich, who could barely breathe while being rushed from his home in Bowman to a Bismarck hospital, says he is willing to share his story.
“I’ve never been so sick, so weak or tired,” said 61-year-old Bowman rancher. “Basically I’ve lost three weeks of my life.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only 55.4% of North Dakotans age 18 and older have been vaccinated, ranking North Dakota 34 among the 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 rate of vaccination action in the state has slowed to about an increase of 1% or less weekly, which Howell called concerning.
There are several reasons why some North Dakotans have chosen not to get the shot, but access to vaccination sites and vaccine offerings are not among them, since the state has more doses than people willing to get.
Pushing holdouts to get their shots is difficult because of the vaccination’s reluctance and lack of confidence in the government, Howell said.
While some states have offered cash incentives or vaccine lotteries to get people to roll up their sleeves, the North Dakota Constitution does not allow such gifts. Instead, the State is relying on a campaign to dispel a wide variety of misinformation about vaccines, such as a statement that could lead to infertility.
The new campaign, which will be launched in a few weeks, will focus largely on skeptical vaccines made disciples to try to reach resilient residents, Howell said.
Anti-masks and people who have recovered from the coronavirus are among the most difficult to convince. That’s where people like Kempenich come from.
The legislature, which 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 close to Williston in the north. west of North Dakota to the South Dakota border. It is also among the most conservative areas of North Dakota; vaccination rates are 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 this, Kempenich was never tested or wore a mask around.
He said he thought he might have had the virus before and thought he was probably safe from catching it.
“I think I got it and I recovered,” he said.
GOP Representative Mike Brandenburg, Kempenich’s friend and close seat colleague in the chamber, received the vaccination when they were offered to the Capitol during the session. He encouraged Kempenich to do the same.
“I tried to make him take a hit, but he blew it up and said,‘ Nah, go ahead, ’said Brandenburg, an Edgeley farmer.“ Then he got really sick. It’s a prime example of why you want to get hit. ”
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. “Actually, once you’ve gone through this, it’s not something you want to repeat. There’s a remedy and it’s better than going through it.”