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Some rural counties are lagging behind in COVID-19 vaccination rates

Health experts say there are many reasons why
COVID-19 vaccine
Posted at 3:52 PM, Apr 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-30 20:59:45-04

WAUSHARA COUNTY (NBC26) — While more COVID-19 shots are going into people's arms every day, some rural communities in Northeast Wisconsin are lagging behind others.

As of Thursday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported more than 4.4 million COVID-19 vaccines have been administered throughout the state. Just over 43 percent of eligible residents, about 2.5 million people, received at least one dose of the vaccine. Nearly 34 percent completed the series.

Waushara County has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in Northeast Wisconsin. DHS data shows about 30 percent of eligible residents received at least one dose, with around 26 percent completing the series.

“We’re going so slowly toward that goal," said Patti Wohlfeil, Waushara County Public Health officer and director.

At the beginning of the vaccine rollout, Wohlfeil said people called "like crazy" to be vaccinated. She said staff vaccinated between 500 and 700 people a week at that time. Now, she said they're lucky to see 50 people a day.

“When it opened up for (almost) everybody, there was no rush of anything," Wohlfeil said.

Wohlfeil said there could be many reasons why the county has a lower vaccination rate than other parts of the state. Two contributing factors are supply and demand.

When the vaccination process started, Wohlfeil said the county didn't receive enough vaccine supply, which immediately slowed the process of getting shots into arms. As time went on, supply started to meet demand, but didn't match the vaccine people wanted.

“When Johnson & Johnson came out, everybody was like, ‘oh! That’s what I want.’ And we were not getting enough of that," Wohlfeil said. “Are we moving from Moderna, which we’ve had long term, and we’re getting less, and less, and less people - I mean pathetically less people for that one - and more people showing interest for the J&J."

`Wohlfeil said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is more convenient for the large number of working people in the county who may not have time to get a second shot or be able to miss work due to a potential second round of side effects.

The health department is planning evening and weekend vaccine clinics to make it easier for people with jobs to get the shot. Wohlfeil said staff is also going directly to companies and outlying communities to bring the COVID-19 vaccine directly to people that otherwise might not get it due to lack of time, transportation or accessibility.

Waushara County Health Department

Wohlfeil said another reason for the lower vaccination rate in Waushara County could be overall vaccine culture.

“Our history in vaccines, even when we look at our two year olds, is low," Wohlfeil said. "So is this our community’s reaction? And that one is really hard to fight.”

Dr. Zachary Baeseman, a ThedaCare family medicine physician in Waupaca and Wild Rose, said he's seen a similar sentiment when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine.

“The Kaiser Family Foundation recently did a survey saying 20 percent of rural residents are not interested in a shot, and that is significantly higher than our suburban or urban populations," Baeseman said. "I’ve seen a lot of people concerned about side effects. Some of them are just simply pre-contemplative, meaning they aren’t really even considering it as an option. It’s not something that they’re entertaining.”

ThedaCare has administered 57,494 vaccines from December 24, 2020 through April 25, 2021.

Baeseman said some people in the rural communities he provides medical care for sometimes feel they're physically isolated enough that they aren't worried about risks. But Baeseman said he suspects there will be outbreaks of COVID-19 variants this summer, and said it's "only a matter of time" before one of the highly infectious variants gets into the Wisconsin population.

"It’s going to be a constant issue in our world that we have to be mindful of communicable disease, especially novel stuff that is new and hasn’t been exposed to humans before," Baeseman said. "So I think for the individual there is good reason to protect themselves by getting this shot, but for our population and protecting our loved ones that may be older, or have more medical conditions, there is real incentive to protect yourself in order to protect those other folks that are your loved ones.”

Wohlfeil said about 60 percent of those 65 and up are vaccinated in Waushara County. She hopes the vaccination rate will reach at least 70 percent.

The health department is also using social media to dispel myths and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. Wohlfeil said they hope this will help educate the public on potential vaccine benefits and encourage more people to get the shot.

#Pregnant? Vaccines help protect you and your baby against serious, preventable diseases. Learn more: icon #NIIW #ivax2protect

Posted by Waushara County Health Department on Wednesday, April 28, 2021

“It’s the only way we’re going to get back to being able to see everybody, hug everybody, go to the events that we want to go to safely," Wohlfeil said. "So that that small percentage of people that get very ill or die from COVID does not happen.”

ThedaCare is offering walk-ins at the following locations:

May 1

  • ThedaCare Physicians Appleton-Gateway
  • 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

May 1

  • ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca
  • 9:30 to 11:30 a.m.

May 2

  • ThedaCare Physicians-Neenah
  • 8:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

ThedaCare has also teamed up with Shawano County Public Health to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to agriculture workers in Shawano County. Doses of the vaccine will be administered at two vaccine clinics currently scheduled for next week. Reservations are required.