Two rural counties lead Wisconsin’s best in the country vaccine effort

Menominee Nation
The Menominee Nation covers most of Menominee County, which is the only county in Wisconsin without an independent newspaper. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

As much of the administration of vaccine doses falls to public health departments across the state, two rural counties — Menominee and Bayfield — lead Wisconsin in percentage of the population that has received at least one dose of the vaccine. 

The success of public health officials working to efficiently vaccinate their relatively small populations helped make  Wisconsin number one  in the country for distribution of its vaccine supply. 

The challenges of the vaccination effort in rural areas is quite different from the challenges in Wisconsin’s largest urban centers. But quickly vaccinating people in the parts of the state that are overwhelmingly older, poorer and less likely to have sufficient access to broadband internet can only serve to more quickly bring an end to the pandemic in Wisconsin. 

“Every county is different, and some will be able to move faster than others toward getting vaccines in arms, especially due to population and demographics,” says Jennifer Miller, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). We are extremely proud of all of our vaccinators. We would not be leading the nation in the amount of vaccine administered if it wasn’t for their hard work and dedication.”

Menominee County — which is largely the Menominee Indian Reservation — leads the state in its vaccination effort. The Menominee Tribal Clinic has offered mass vaccination sites at the local high school and casino, leading to 37.2% of the county’s population receiving at least one dose of the vaccine, according to DHS data. 

The total population of the county is only about 4,500, which means the tribal clinic has administered 1,694 doses. But in a county that is almost entirely Native American, an efficient vaccination effort serves to benefit a vulnerable population that was disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. 

Further north, Bayfield County has given 34.9% of its 15,000 residents at least one dose of the vaccine. More than 28% of the county’s population is older than 65, according to census data

The large population of older residents means that more of the county was eligible to be vaccinated sooner, but other counties with similar populations and percentage of residents older than 65, like Washburn County, haven’t had the same success with early vaccination efforts. 

Public health officials say administering vaccines is a complex undertaking and different counties have advantages to early success that others don’t, though these two counties are far outpacing the slowest counties such as Taylor County which has vaccinated 13.1% of its population. Statewide, 21.6% of the population has received one dose of the vaccine. 

“The COVID-19 vaccination program is one of the largest and most complex public health initiatives in Wisconsin’s history,” Miller says. “We are committed to the safe, quick, and equitable distribution of the vaccine, and recognize that public education and community outreach is vital to our vaccination efforts. Our community partners across the state are critical to the success of this program.”

Officials in Bayfield and Menominee counties attribute some of their success to early planning efforts. Bayfield County Public Health public information officer Anne-Marie Coy says the county was able to slightly adjust already existing mass vaccination plans to be COVID-19-specific. Menominee Tribal Clinic Dr. Amy Slagle says the tribal government brought together all the necessary officials from public health, emergency management and local healthcare as early as October to start planning for the vaccination effort. 

Slagle says DHS has basically been giving the state’s tribes exactly the amount of doses they request each week, which helps with planning and distributing at as quick a pace as possible. Other than one week early on when the clinic only received one vial and in February when vaccine shipments were delayed nationwide because of severe winter weather, the state has been giving the requested supply.

“[DHS] made the commitment to work with us to supply what we need because we have an incredibly vulnerable and at risk population,” she says. 

This week, Slagle says the county has requested 700 doses — which she hopes can all be administered by Friday. 

The Bayfield County Health Department already had a dedicated location for mass distribution of vaccines, Coy says. The county has also had success working with the health officials on the Red Cliff Reservation and area health care providers, according to Coy.

Bayfield County also regularly meets and collaborates with the health departments in nearby Iron and Ashland counties because the whole region is so intertwined, she says. Those two counties are also exceeding the statewide vaccination rate. 

“For the whole region, Bayfield County and Ashland County, when we’ve come out with different types of messaging, we’ve worked with them. We do the same thing with our tribal population up in Red Cliff,” Coy says. “Ashland County is really close to our county as far as vaccinations go. Lots of Ashland County residents work in Bayfield, lots of Bayfield residents work in Ashland. All of our efforts have been combined, that’s how we’re able to focus on keeping populations safe.” 

Coy says the county has the capacity to administer 250 vaccine doses per day, though because of limits in supply from the state, it only holds vaccination clinics once or twice per week. 

She also admits that Bayfield County benefits from more of its population being eligible sooner. 

But Bayfield’s older population presents other challenges, as does the remoteness of both Bayfield and Menominee counties. For both areas, access to broadband internet can be spotty and in Bayfield an older population may have trouble navigating the internet to find an appointment. 

Because of this, health officials in both counties have decided to only use the internet for residents to register their intent to get vaccinated. Appointments are made by public health workers calling to confirm with residents. The Menominee mass vaccination clinic will also soon be open for walk-ins from younger members of the tribal population. 

Health officials in Menominee have placed printed vaccination announcements in gas stations and convenience stores. The Bayfield County Human Services Department has helped health officials identify populations that need to be reached and, for example, get vaccine info to Meals on Wheels recipients. 

But even with all these stars aligned, both counties have benefited from populations that have embraced the vaccine and health officials have seen some, but not much, vaccine hesitancy. 

“The last thing which is the most important is our community’s willingness and eagerness and enthusiasm to get vaccinated,” Slagle says. “They completely get that we have a high risk population and I think one of the beautiful things about tribal culture is regard and reverence for elders, love and care for family members and to act out of the need of others rather than self. People have made these decisions based not only on what’s good for them but what’s good for their family, friends and tribe.”