My Turn: Kentucky — another ‘miracle’ drug?


Published: 1/8/2021 3:44:52 PM
Modified: 1/8/2021 3:44:38 PM

Editor’s note: Two voices, two viewpoints on Covid-19 vaccination from Hands Across the Hills: Jay Frost, recently of Leverett, and Gwen Johnson from Eastern Kentucky coal country. Hands Across the Hills formed in Leverett after the 2016 election and bridged with Letcher County KY to foster understanding between communities that differed widely in politics and attitudes. Three long weekend visits to each others’ towns and continuing Zoom meetings keep the dialogues, conversations and friendships growing. This is the first in a series of dual essays on topics meaningful to both communities.


The coronavirus vaccine is now being distributed and administered all over the United States, but many folks here in eastern Kentucky are not interested.

Over the weeks since these articles were conceived in a Hands Across the Hills brainstorming session with participants from Leverett, Mass. and Letcher County, Ky., I conducted an impromptu survey among the highways and the hedges of my local area. I asked a simple question: How do you feel about the prospect of being injected with the new COVID-19 vaccine?

Responses fell into three general categories:

Among some respondents, the question was met with skepticism and thoughtful consideration. They said that they would wait and see what happened but would not take the vaccine just yet.

Others answered with a resounding “No!,” but then tempered their responses by suggesting that they might later take the vaccine after waiting to see if there were any health concerns or side effects among early adopters.

Still others, like myself, expressed the desire to promptly take the vaccine in order to get on with our lives and quit worrying about it. (Among this group were several health care professionals who are mandated to receive the vaccine.)

The numbers of respondents in each of the three groups were about equal. This led me to wonder: Do the results of this survey reflect public opinion in other parts of the country, or are we unique here in our region.

When the first vaccine shipment arrived in our county, the local newspapers ran front-page stories announcing its availability. I applauded the news, but not all my neighbors felt the same way.

Many residents continued to be apprehensive and hesitant even after the vaccine became available. Perhaps, they thought, this is just another “marketing” experiment using hillbillies as subjects, such as in the early 2000s when Purdue Pharma dumped tons of Oxycontin into Appalachian communities via local health care systems and pharmacies. For years, Oxycontin — dubbed “hillbilly heroin” — flooded our mountain communities, with dire consequences.

If some people here in eastern Kentucky are slow to get on board with a new medication, please understand that this is not our first rodeo. We have been exploited by Big Pharma and healthcare systems, triggering an epidemic of drug use and incarceration that has created a near-complete failure of family and cultural systems.

If some folks are slow to embrace this “miracle” vaccine that could end the dreaded coronavirus, this could possibly be why. So before you judge us too harshly, try to put yourself in our shoes (although they not be as nice as the ones you typically wear).

Human medical experiments without a patient’s consent may be outlawed in this country — unless, of course, you were a hillbilly in moderate pain during Oxycontin trials. Some folks around here are suspicious lest they fall prey to yet another “miracle” medication.

Gwen Johnson, a self-described hillbilly woman from Hemphill, Ky., is proprietor of Black Sheep Bakery and Catering, an entity that generates revenue for the non-profit Hemphill Community Center. She has been a member of Hands Across the Hills since 2017.


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